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Supporting Young People During Exam Stress

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Secondary school students all over the country are currently in the midst of their junior and leaving certificate mock exams. With this in mind today our parenting coach Val Mullally will be giving some advice for parents on how to support their kids through the examination process.

Val Mullally - Parenting Coach
Val Mullally MA is founder of PACER providing training for effective parenting. She is an author, workshop presenter, parenting coach and early education consultant. Her first book, 'Working with Under Sixes', is aimed at those working with groups of children. She is currently writing her second book, developing the concept of 'Conscious Parenting'. She also contributes regularly to local radio on issues concerning parenting.
Val's caring, relaxed and friendly approach, using easily understandable principles and drawing from helpful and often humorous illustrations, supports parents, carers and teachers in creating structure and emotional safety within the home and all childcare environments, to nurture the well-being of all concerned. She pays particular attention to each individual's inner world experience (both that of the child and of the adult). Val draws on the wisdom of many years' experience, as a mother, teacher and principal. She has recent, very relevant training, which brings a fresh paradigm of key principles to parenting.
She holds a Masters degree in Holistic Development, majoring in Family Ministry, (DCU, Dublin), as well as a Certificate in Interpersonal Communications - Training to Work with Parents, (UCC, Cork). Val and her husband have spent many years in Africa and are now settled in Ireland.

Vals Experience
My son's headmaster (who was close to retirement and very wise from years of experience) advised parents of first year secondary students to back off and let youngsters take responsibility for their homework / exam prep. He proposed that unless they learn to take responsibility for their own work schedule when they went on to tertiary education they wouldn't cope. I experienced this as some of the most helpful advice I've ever been given.

Responsibility = response/ability 
Help your children to learn to be able to respond to their situation themselves.

All the sensible advice - but why don't we follow it?
We all know abut importance of healthy diet / avoiding sugar overload / getting exercise / planning a schedule and keeping to it (If you fail to plan - you plan to fail) - but how come we don't keep to all this good advice?
I'd love to tell my children how to organize themselves - but when it comes to my own organisation .e. g. Getting my annual income tax statement in - I'm invariably doing it  at midnight before deadline. 
So why do we expect our children to be different?

So what might be helpful for our young people?
Our nagging can make our children feel even more stressed about exams - even though our intentions are to be helpful.
When we are stressed the cortisole levels in our brains rise and it's really hard for us to study effectively. Young people need home to be a calm, supportive oasis - not an added stress factor.

I'd suggest a Parent Coaching approach - which could look something like this:
Rather than talk to your young people talk with them. I use the acronym COAL.


Create opportunities to be curious and hear how they would like their life to be.

In a relaxed and calm conversation, use WHAT questions.
What is it you hope to do with your life?
What is your plan to achieve this?
(We're all far more motivated to put the work in now if we can see the end benefit of it. When youngsters can start seeing their future path - they're more likely to take study seriously).

Avoid 'Why? questions.
'E.g. "Why haven't you studied this afternoon?'
"Why questions tend to lead to blaming or making excuses - rather than taking responsibility.'

If you ever hear yourself telling your child (or anyone else) what they should do - be aware you're probably imposing your values.
So rather than say 'should' try 'could'.
e.g.  Listen to the difference between saying:
'You should study tonight ' or
'You could study tonight'.

When we hear 'could' we recognise that we have a choice - and we're more likely to choose something to do something helpful if we feel we can choose rather than if we feel we're being forced into it.

Be ACCEPTING of your child's feelings and of his choices
If you're child says I' don't feel like studying.'
Try mirroring
'So you don't feel like studying - so what will you choose to do?'
We often underestimate young people. Just because they state that don't feel like doing something doesn't mean they won't. Haven't you ever said, 'I don't feel like going to work.'? It doesn't mean you won't go!  

Also avoid leading questions like:
'So don't you think you should be studying tonight?'
Young people sense that we are trying to force our own agenda

(I do believe in clear boundaries around going out times etc. But generally if we trust our children to be response-able they will meet our expectations.)

LOVE is the bottom line

I like Scott Peck's definition of love
'Love is extending yourself to cause the other person's growth.'

Love doesn't mean doing everything for your child. It's often tempting to try to arrange your child's schedule etc. - but ask yourself if, when you look at the big picture and the long term results - 'Will what I'm trying to do now really help him /her to grow into a response-able capable adult?'

If you've been taking responsibility for your child's learning - you need to have a serious and calm chat with your child, if you choose to discuss who's taking responsibility for the learning.