Take the stress out of exams

IT HAPPENS every year - as exam pressure builds up, help agencies and counsellors receive more children and parents through their doors trying to find ways to alleviate their anxieties.

Children's fears that they won't achieve what they see as vital grades can leave them feeling anxious, unable to sleep, eat or function normally.

Such is the concern, that on May 6, ChildLine is launching an awareness campaign to let children and young people know that they can talk to the organisation if they are suffering from exam stress.

According to the charity, 2011/12 saw a 47% increase in concerns about school and education and some 25% of counselling relating to school and education was about exam pressures.

Where exams were the issue, 66% of counselling was conducted through online chat or email. Just under a third of these contacts took place in exam season between May and June 2011.

Other bodies are also trying to help alleviate the situation. Counsellors at the University of Edinburgh are drafting in therapy pets to help stressed students cope with their exams. It is the first time the charity Canine Concern Scotland Trust has worked with a university.

Typical symptoms children may present if suffering from exam stress include sleep problems, bed-wetting, reluctance to go to school and not eating. Some become withdrawn and spend more time on their own in their bedroom.

Clinical psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew, who specialises in child and family psychology at a Lancashire practice, says that every May she sees an increased number of cases of children suffering from symptoms of exam stress and that the number of primary school children suffering from anxiety is also on the rise.

"SATS tests are putting primary school children under pressure to perform because of league tables. We are seeing younger children, aged seven to 11, being more stressed out by exams. Children of those ages are much more aware of themselves in relation to their peer group and are aware of parental expectations and most of our referrals about anxiety come from seven- to 11-year-olds, who are at a developmental stage and are very vulnerable and don't have control about their anxiety."

She adds that such anxiety isn't always to do with pushy parents.

"We see more mothers than fathers and often the mothers will be anxious that if their child doesn't achieve, it will affect their future lifestyles. These are mothers whose children are not necessarily high fliers and who have realistic expectations, but feel powerless to help.

Andrew advises: "Don't underestimate the importance of reassuring your child that if they try hard and do their best, that's good enough for you whatever the outcome. Empathise that exam season is a hard time and don't be dismissive about how difficult it is.

"Ask if they've any areas you can help them with and make sure they do things away from studying, such as trips out."

There are also a number of relaxation CDs and downloads for children which can help with anxiety available from websites including www.relaxkids.com, which feature breathing exercises, relaxation and visualisation techniques, where younger children might visualise themselves as superheroes.

She suggests that when dealing with older children, parents should talk to them about the physical symptoms of anxiety, based around adrenaline, visualising that adrenaline rush as excitement and a positive thing rather than anxiety.

"It's your body's way of preparing yourself to do the very best you can do," she says.

Encourage older children to let off steam by doing exercise, say going for a bike ride or a swim, in between studying, she advises, and keep the routine of mealtimes and bedtimes as steady as possible.

Don't be afraid to talk to the school, either, she says.

"It might help if a teacher has a talk with your child about their expectations."

There are also websites offering help for parents of anxious children including the emotional wellbeing charity Young Minds (www.youngminds.org.uk), which has a parent helpline on 0808 802 5544, and the NSPCC (www.nspcc.org.uk), which offers the following tips for parents: :: Don't place unnecessary pressure on your children to gain certain grades. They may feel they have failed if they don't achieve what they thought was expected of them.

:: Encourage children to take regular breaks, eat snacks and exercise.

:: Help them revise by leaving them the space and time to do so. Be relaxed about chores or untidiness and understand they might be moody.

:: Allow your children to revise at night if that's what works best for them. However, make sure that they get enough sleep to keep their energy levels up in the day.

:: Be supportive and help alleviate their worries by talking to them.

:: Let them know that ChildLine has produced a series of revision tips to help beat exam stress.

:: Be positive, help them put the whole thing into perspective. They can always take an exam again.

:: Tell them exams don't have to be stressful and send them a link to ChildLine's new video clip on unusual way to beat exam stress to cheer them up.

Tips for young people on how to beat exam stress can be found on the ChildLine website www.childline.org.uk/explore/schoolcollege/pages/exam-stress.aspx together with details on how to contact ChildLine if they need to talk to/email one of its trained counsellors in confidence.

Ask the expert Q: "My 10-year-old daughter seems to be growing up too quickly. What can I do?"

A: Psychologist Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Girls (HarperCollins, £12.99), says: "The last thing you want is for her to be rushing off to parties feeling she's got to look stunning and worrying about her skin. Girls didn't do that a generation ago. They brushed their hair, put on a clean T-shirt and went down the high street. I know girls today who spend an hour putting on their make-up before they go down the high street.

"Don't have a smartphone in a 10-year-old's bedroom at night because friends will call them. Then they may check their Facebook page to make sure no one's said anything nasty about them. It's out of stress that they're doing this.

"I wouldn't treat shopping as a mother-daughter recreation or talk about weight in the house or buy fashion magazines. Don't show an interest in it.

"Girls are perfect prey for the advertisers. Young girls are socially very aware, very finely tuned to the cues in the world around them, and it's been easy for advertisers and marketing people to make them feel anxious or unsure about themselves and to push items they can quickly be persuaded they 'need'.

"About half of the influence you will have on her is in your role-modelling. Think about how to be kind, how to be patient towards others. If you are unkind, or sharp, she will go on to deal with other people in a similar way.

"Explain your values to your kids. As a parent, you are always trying to find middle ground. If you take a stand on things, it gives them solidity which they can stand behind when they need to."

 

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