Helping your teenagers through the exam stress

Many young people will be under pressure but there are ways to make things easier

With the Junior and Leaving Certificate just around the corner, many young people will be under pressure and dealing with stress. The emotional toll of packed routines of study, or feeling guilty that you are not studying enough or being unable to get going with study, not to mention all the worry and anxiety about exams, can stress out young people. And it is not just the young people affected, and many parents can become equally stressed as they worry in sympathy or find themselves dealing with an irritable and anxious teenager in the home. Of course, as parents there is a lot you can do to help.

Respond calmly

The first thing you can do is to manage your own stress. The more you can respond calmly to your teen’s stress and the more you can be a “beacon of calm” in the home the more helpful you can be. This might mean anticipating that your teenager might be stressed and take time to plan accordingly. Having more time to be around to support them over the exam period is a good idea.

Make a study plan with your teen


Much of the stress caused by exams is the sense of being overwhelmed with everything that has to be done. Making a clear study plan that contains small achievable goals can make things much more manageable. Sit down with your teen and help them make out a detailed plan for the final few weeks of study and for the exam period itself. Even at this late stage a good plan can help. Some teenagers are good at making their own plans and just need you there to support and others will benefit from you being more of an active coach in the next few weeks.

Have a daily review time

Take an interest in your teen’s study and progress. Listen to the details of what they are studying and what progress they have made. Having an agreed daily review time can help, where you go over what they have covered that day and listen to their plans for next day. During the exam period, it is important to spend a little time listening to “the story” of each exam as they finish but avoid post mortems and over analysis. Move on the conversation to planning for the next exam.

Address stress directly using relaxation strategies

Help your teen notice when they are feeling stressed and anxious so they can learn strategies to deal with this directly. For example, if you notice that they are getting “hyped up” or “overwhelmed” you might name this – “look you are getting a bit wound up today…that is understandable… why don’t you take a 10- minute break and come back to it”. Help your teenager identify different stress-busting strategies that work for them whether these are mindfulness or meditation, counting in and out breaths, or visualising a relaxing space while listening to music. It is a good idea to incorporate a period of relaxation into the daily routine, so it becomes a practised technique they can draw upon, either before or after a period of study or even just before an exam

Challenge stressful thinking

When stressed it is easy to descend into negative thinking such as “its hopeless, I’ll never be able to do this” etc. Help your teen notice and challenge the negative thoughts that underpin their stress. For example, if they say “I can never study” you can say “that is just the stress talking… Remember all the progress you made yesterday” . Encourage your teens to come up with more balanced thoughts to counterbalance the stress “I’m just feeling a bit anxious, and that is normal” or “I’m going to focus on doing my best”.

Help create a good routine in the home

Often the secret to managing exam stress is establishing a balanced daily routine that includes time for rest and relaxation as well as study. Help your teen punctuate study with regular breaks when they have space to do things that help them switch off and relax. In particular, breaks that involve some physical exercise can do wonders to refresh the mind, whether this is going out for a walk or a run or doing a sport they enjoy.

The importance of sleep

Most importantly, ensure your teen gets into a good sleep routine. While it might vary as to when they get their sleep, with some teens being night owls and other being morning larks it is important that they get into a good routine that allows them to get their much-needed eight hours. In addition, encourage your teen to get into the the habit of doing something relaxing that is non-study related just before they sleeps (reading a novel, listening to music etc).

Have regular mealtimes

Setting up a routine of regular nutritious mealtimes can help with managing stress. Taking time out to eat well also gives your teen a break from study and gives you time to chat and connect with them. Make sure there are plenty of healthy snacks available and encourage them to drink plenty of water rather than sugary or caffeine drinks as they study.

Put exams in perspective

While the exam period is an intense time that is important in your teens life it is important to put things in perspective – exams aren’t the be all and end all. An important message to give your teenager on the day before their exams is that you love and believe in them no matter what their performance is. Let them know you will be there for them no matter what.

Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. For details of his courses and books, see