Supporting young people through the academic results period

With exam season being cancelled, young people are facing more uncertainty around their qualifications and have a long summer break from schools/colleges. COVID-19, lockdown, closure of schools, changes in exams have all deeply disrupted our sense of consistency and predictability. Managing change and uncertainty is one of the hardest skills for any of us to learn.  For some young people the cancelling of formal exams may have felt like a relief, for others it may be deeply disappointing. This is in the context of many final ‘leavers’ events that usually mark the end of a young person’s school life also being cancelled and the usual celebratory events such as holidays also being very uncertain.

Claire Hopkins, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist talks about how parents can help their children manage uncertainty.

Young people (and adults!) thrive when their worlds are consistent, predictable and make sense. This is because, when all these factors are in place, the world feels like a safer place and we can get on with our day to day lives. For some, this may be manageable, whereas for others it may be an intolerable feeling and may lead young people to seek other ways of gaining back some level of control e.g. self-harm, breaking Covid restrictions, excessive sleeping, not leaving the house. It can be really useful to help our young people to recognise what they are feeling inside and how they are trying to cope and make sense of things. The following may be useful to think about:

1.  Talk with your child: Let them know that you have noticed they are stressed or worried and that you are there to help. Even if your child rebuffs this offer of support it still registers in their minds that their wellbeing is noticed and is important. This may be enough in itself to help them get over the stressful period. Feelings of isolation and feeling like they are ‘the only one’ can greatly exacerbate our perception of stress.

2.  Help your child to understand why uncertainty is so difficult to manage: think with them about what is so difficult about it and let them know there may be many different ways of trying to cope with it too. Some ways might be more helpful than others (such as exercising to feel in control or meeting with friends who are in the same position as them), whereas other ways of managing feelings may seem to offer relief (such as excessive drinking or self harm) but cause more anxiety in the long run. Psychoeducation can be very effective in helping the young person to make sense of their bodies and minds and feel in control again.

3.  Help them to know what anxiety feels like in the body (e.g. tight stomach, racing thoughts, sweaty palms): This will help the young person recognise symptoms of stress themselves. Naming emotions and linking it to their corresponding feelings in the body can bring about a great sense of relief to young people as it helps to make sense of what they are experiencing. Remember, hormones are racing at this point in adolescent development and they may feel really out of sorts with themselves!

4.  Offer to work together with your young person to put a plan in place which would help them to feel more in control of their worlds: I.e. to control what is controllable and to ‘let go’ of those things which we cannot control. For example, would the young person benefit from having more structure and routine in the house so that this environment can become more predictable? Would it be helpful to plan when they will do their school work and when they will spend time with friends? This may be especially important when young people are on study leave and are facing the prospect of a long summer break without structure. It could be helpful to think together about how the whole family will manage and respond when the young person feels stressed or angry and perhaps other family members need to understand more about the emotional and bodily responses to stress.

5.  Encourage living in the now! One of the difficulties of the human mind is that it has evolved to spend too much time planning, predicting and preventing distress. This has helped us survive as a species but also means that sometimes living in the past or future greatly overshadows our ability to live in the now. Thinking and worrying about exam results day, for example, may be much worse than how you might actually feel on the day. The only thing that we can be certain about is how we feel, and what is real, in this very moment. Relaxing and being more mindful of the here and now will help us to bring things into better perspective. Teaching children and young people to be more mindful of their thoughts has already been shown to improve mental health and wellbeing.