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Help! Our kids are doing exams, but we’re the ones feeling the stress


Under pressure: exams can be a source of great difficulty for many teenagers

Under pressure: exams can be a source of great difficulty for many teenagers

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Hard workers: Karen Ireland with (from left) her sons Jesse, Teo and Korey

Hard workers: Karen Ireland with (from left) her sons Jesse, Teo and Korey

Cut above: from left, Leisa Stafford with daughters Ava and Joni and husband Paul

Cut above: from left, Leisa Stafford with daughters Ava and Joni and husband Paul

Under pressure: exams can be a source of great difficulty for many teenagers

The sun’s shining so it must be exam season. Karen Ireland reveals her children’s approach to studying and asks two other mothers how they cope.

‘My boys seem to be handling it all well, but I’m walking the floors at night ...’

Writer Karen Ireland lives in Donaghcloney with her three boys, Jesse (18), Korey (16) and Teo (14). She says:

In this household we have the additional stress of two sets of exams. Korey is taking his GCSEs and Jesse is doing A-levels. The boys seem to be handling the stress remarkably well. They are still coming and going and seeing their friends when they can. So it is not a case of all work and no play.

I, on the other hand, am walking the floors at night worrying about them and their futures.

So much appears to ride on these exams. Both boys want a career in film (I blame Game of Thrones!).

Jesse has taken the traditional route and is studying for his A-Levels with the hope of going to Queen’s University to do film studies if he gets the grades, while Korey wants to launch straight into media with a course at the local technical college before going to study for a film degree at Bournemouth University.

Apart from the stress and the extra grey hairs, it is making me feel old. How did I get to have kids at this stage in life?

It just seems like last year when they were carefree and enjoying splashing around in a paddling pool and camping outside.

Now they are making life-affirming decisions and one is about to flee the nest.

I have all sorts of emotions going on at the same time. I worry about them if they are cooped up inside and not getting out and about and enough fresh air, and if they seem to be too social I worry they aren’t revising enough.

There is no easy solution. I’ve realised this is just the next stage of raising teenagers and something I/we must go through.

I worry they are not eating enough or regularly enough, so I try to do my bit by taking them out for lunch or a coffee break when we can fit it in.

Genrally thought, I think that boys take it in their stride and worry less than girls.

I recently found a diary from when I was doing my A-levels and it’s funny to compare the two.

I was religious about my studies and only took breaks when it was time to watch Neighbours or have dinner.

The boys do not appear to be as regimented as I was, but they still assure me they are working.

I remember on days off going to play tennis and for bike rides, and ending up with really bad hay fever in the middle of my A-levels.

But according to the diary it was a time of great fun and friendship as well as challenging work.

I want that for the boys — I want them to work hard and give it their best shot, but I also want them to have fun and make memories along the way. That’s what life is about.

And one day, all of a sudden, they’ll be walking the floors at night worried about their own children.

In the meantime, Teo just needs to keep the music down when he is in the house.

And I’ve had to learn to hoover at the weekends or when they are out.

It is difficult not to keep asking how the revision is going every few hours.

I would worry when they are not doing enough and I worry that they might be doing too much.

I don’t remember my parents being on my back at exam time — they trusted me to know what I needed to do and when I needed to do it.

Now, hard as it is, it is my turn to do the same!

'As a parent all you can do is be there for them'

Pauline Hanna (48), a consultant's secretary at the Belfast Trust, and her husband Trevor, a farmer, live near Banbridge with their children Adam (16), Lauren (14) and Ryan (11). Pauline says:

It has been an exceptionally busy year in our household as Adam is doing GCSEs, Lauren has been picking her subjects for GCSE and Ryan was studying for his AQE exam.

I was a bit stressed when Ryan was going through the papers, though outwardly I try to remain calm for the kids. He always got good marks in school so I thought he would do okay, but you just never know on those three Saturdays when they sit the exams that nerves may get the better of them or they don't read the paper correctly.

However, we were shocked and delighted when we got the letter through to say he had scored 127 - one of the highest in his school.

Then comes the worry of him getting into the school of his choice, but thankfully we heard recently he will follow Lauren and Adam to Banbridge Academy in September.

When it came to Lauren picking her subjects, she didn't really know what she wanted to do as a career so we encouraged her to go for as broad a range of subjects as possible, which she has done.

And, as for Adam, he is working exceptionally hard on his GCSEs.

I try not to stress and worry too much about him as then that just worries him and gets him stressed.

Trevor and I have just said to them all to do their best. University isn't the be all and end all, and it is not the path for every student.

Adam has been good at taking time out and we encourage that. He works on the farm helping his dad or goes to watch Ryan play rugby. He also might go to the gym in the afternoon as he will be going to the Ulster Rugby under-18 school in the summer and he needs to keep his fitness levels up.

So that is a release for him.

During the day when the other two are at school he goes to his room and shuts the door and just gets on with it.

I think all you can do as a parent, whatever stage they are at, is be there for them and support and encourage their decisions.

Adam wants to study geography, technology and design and ICT. He wants to do well in those subjects and to get the grades to get back into school to do A-levels.

We thought he might consider professional rugby and turn to that for a career as it has always been his passion, but I think he just likes to play for fun and enjoy the social side of it.

I think the main problem is that the GCSE results come out so late in the summer and then it is back to school the following week. They only really have a day to make their decisions, which is more pressure.

'As a mum I feel like I am walking on eggshells until we get over this time'

Leisa Stafford (49) and her husband Paul (49) live in Belfast and run Stafford Hair. They have two daughters, Joni (17) and Ava (15). Leisa says:

My girls are both doing exams at the minute. Ava is doing four GCSE modules and Joni is doing AS-levels.

The key for me lies in ensuring there is plenty of good food in the house and lots of healthy snacks so they are not eating sugary snacks throughout the day.

I make smoothies in the morning so their day starts off the right way.

I believe they need treats and something to look forward to throughout their exams so if they don't go out and see their friends we will take them out for a nice meal.

We also talk about and plan our family holiday to Ibiza in the summer.

I got a soothing pillow spray and a balm from Space NK so I will put that in their rooms and around their pillows and encourage early nights.

I think it is the parents' job to keep the house as calm as possible and very much on an even keel.

I had a friend who wanted to call over a couple of Saturdays ago with her young sons and I knew the dogs would get all excited and disturb the girls so I had to put her off until after the exams are over.

As a mum, I kind of feel like I am walking on eggshells until we get over exam time. You also need to know your children and treat each one differently.

Schoolwork isn't at the top of Ava's priority list so I had to try some reverse psychology on her and say maybe we need a plan B in case you don't get back into school next year... that seemed to work and she has been putting more effort in.

Joni works hard and we have to tell her that it is time to take a break.

She puts enough pressure on herself so I try not to.

I've never been a pushy mum. I just tell them to do their best - that is all we can ask.

I think exercise is important too and I encourage Joni to go to the gym or go out for a run before she starts studying.

They learn in different ways too. It is important to remember that.

Ava and Joni are completely different.

Ava will just have to read something once and she will remember it whereas Joni needs to write it down several times for it to go in.

I think parents can play the important role of providing tasty food and ensuring the children get enough sleep and exercise -and plenty of breaks in between all the revising.

Eight ways parents can offer support

According to the NHS Choices, there are lots of ways to help your child beat exam stress, including:

Make sure your child eats well

A balanced diet is vital for your child’s health and can help them feel well during exam periods.

Where possible, involve your child in shopping for food and encourage them to choose some healthy snacks.

Help your child get enough sleep

Good sleep will improve thinking and concentration. Most teenagers need between eight and 10 hours a night.

Cramming all night before an exam is usually a bad idea. Sleep will benefit your child far more than a few hours of frantic last-minute study.

Be flexible during exams

When your child is revising all day, don’t worry about household jobs that are left undone or untidy bedrooms.

Staying calm yourself can help.

Help them to study

Make sure your child has somewhere comfortable to study. Help them come up with practical ideas that will help them revise, such as drawing up a revision schedule or getting hold of past papers for practice.

Talk about exam nerves

Remind your child that feeling anxious is normal. The key is to put these nerves to positive use.

If anxiety seems to be getting in the way rather than helping, encourage your child to practise the sort of activities they will be doing on the day of the exam. This may involve doing practice papers under exam conditions or seeing the exam hall beforehand. School staff should be able to help with this.

Encourage them to remember the time they’ve already put into studying to help them feel more confident.

Encourage exercise during exams

Exercise can help boost energy levels, clear the mind and relieve stress. It doesn’t matter what it is — walking, cycling, swimming and football are all effective.

Don’t add to the pressure

Support group Childline says lots of the children who contact them feel that most pressure at exam time comes from their family.

Try to listen to your child, give support and avoid criticism.

Before they go in for a test or exam, be reassuring and positive. Let them know that failing isn’t the end of the world. After each exam, encourage your child to talk it through with you.

Talk about the parts that went well rather than focusing on the questions they had difficulties with. Then move on and focus on the next test, rather than dwelling on things that can’t be changed.

Make time for treats

Think through with your child some rewards for doing revision and getting through each exam. They can include simple things like making their favourite meal or watching TV.

When the exams are over, help your child celebrate by organising an end-of-exams treat.

For more information, you can visit www.nhs.uk

Belfast Telegraph