When Your Anxiety Is Bigger Than Your Child’s Syllabus

Being a parent around exam time can be hard: here is how you can get a step closer to your child during this stressful time.

Recently, I was at a get-together, when a middle-aged gentleman approached me and with some inhibition asked, “Are you a psychologist? I heard you speaking with someone a little while ago and, and, how should I say this, I think my son needs your help.” When I enquired, he mentioned that his son, who has always been a good student, has his 12 th grade final exams approaching and isn’t concentrating on his studies. “He spends most of his time chatting with his friends,” he said. The father complained about how the son, when asked about his studies or future, gets angry and is constantly irritable when at home; refusing to communicate. I tried to discuss with the father that some of his irritability could be attributed to stress in his life. To this the father got rather annoyed with me and said, “What do you mean? What stress does he have? He doesn’t have any stressors in his life!”

The sad reality of this situation made me think of how stress can cause and further exacerbate conflict within relationships. Communication between parents and children can be one of the hardest things to get right! Yet, it is essential in order to foster a healthy family environment and for the wellbeing of both parents and children. Being a parent at exam time can be very difficult. Compounding effects of personal aspirations as well as societal pressure to see your child perform well can be very stressful. This stress is often manifested by way of the parent being critical of the child’s performance. This, in turn, can place more pressure on the child and result in elevated levels of anxiety during examinations. Such anxiety and stress has a negative impact on the child’s emotional wellbeing and can be detrimental to performance. Most children are unable to communicate this distress and internalize the parents’ desire to perform. I often find high school children suffering from symptoms of anxiety and stress during exams that manifest as irritability and moodiness in the emotional domain and as fever, nausea, rashes, and gastrointestinal problems in the physical domain.

It is sad, as both, the parents and children are trying to work towards making the other party happy and fulfilling their expectations. I’ve known parents put their entire life on hold during their children’s exams and children reciprocating by working long and grueling hours, often burning the midnight lamp, to prove their worth to their parents and not let the parents’ sacrifices go waste.

In the above story, the child was experiencing a lot of immediate stress related to his upcoming exams. As someone who has had good grades throughout his life, he is most likely experiencing a lot of pressure to perform up to his parents’ and society’s expectations. Added to this is the experience of having a parent who is not being able to understand his distress, and who himself is feeling quite helpless within this context.

Of course as a parent, you want the best for your child and you would do anything to help them achieve that. But we need to be cautious as to when it stops being about your child and becomes more about you! My tip to parents: just letting your child know you care and that’s why you want them to perform isn’t enough (that might actually add more pressure on the child) – Engage in active listening and communication! Sit them down and ask them details of their academic work, their problems, the pressure on them, put by society and peers, and let them know that no matter what the result of a particular exam, you see their worth as more than just the performance on academic tests. Performance on a set of exams like the 12 the boards or professional entrance tests, even though important, is not everything. A person is more than the result of a test.

Another error that parents often make is to think that the more stress there is on their child, the better the child will perform. Similarly, the more hours the child studies, the better their performance will be. Well, that is not correct. Scientific evidence suggests that the normal attention span is not more than 38 minutes at one go. Hence, after every 40-minute study session, you should let your child take a 10-minute break. Additionally, too much stress is never a good thing. Encourage them to review what they have studied after every few sessions. The review can be just reading through what they studied. There is something called optimal stress, which is a moderate amount of stress. This should be just enough to motivate your child to study, but not overwhelm them or make them feel anxious. Consistently studying throughout the year, with some hobby or relaxation to unwind is the best way to get good results.

Remember, one exam or one set of grades need not have a consequence on long-term success or wellbeing. There are many avenues to explore in life, and the best way to help your child is to facilitate their journey towards discovering what is the best suited profession for them. Evaluating one’s aptitude and interests and choosing a profession based on that, is the best way to live a happy and healthy life.

So talk to your child; understand their interest and aims; and guide them in a useful manner. You are the best friend they can ever have so provide them with the guidance and comfort they deserve. Help your child bring out the best in themselves and strive towards long-term success.