Helping your teen cope with exam stress

In a previous blog post (Coping with exam stress), we discussed the importance of eating well, getting enough sleep, staying organised and making time for leisure activities and relaxation.

If you’re worried about your teen, and feeling unsure about how to help them cope with the pressures of exam revision, then read on.

Generally, stress and anxiety can be managed. It’s important to try and understand why your teen is feeling so stressed (and how they’re showing it). Without the proper tools and coping strategies, many people lash out in anger and frustration when they are stressed. Sometimes people’s stress can result in apathy and lethargy. The person (your teen) may be so stressed out that they feel overwhelmed and incapable of getting anything done.

Your teen is probably stressed for one, or all, of the following reasons:

  • They are feeling pressure to do well (from you, school, teachers or themselves)
  • They are feeling overwhelmed
  • They are feeling insecure or a lack of confidence
  • They are feeling anxious because they do not know what to expect.

Here’s how to help:

Remind your child that their best is good enough

Take the pressure off a little by asking your child to set realistic goals and expectations. It’s essential that you listen to your teen at this point and try to understand what they think they can do. Of course we always want to have high expectations for our children (and we should have these!) but we should also realise what is achievable.

For example, if your child’s extra-mural activities are eating into their exam revision time, something has to give. You may also find that there is a particular section or subject that your child is finding very difficult. Just because your child was once good at Maths, doesn’t mean that they will always be!

Listen carefully and try to help where you can. And align your expectations to what your child is able to achieve – without pressure.

Provide the right tools and environment to ease the pressure

It’s essential that your child eats well and gets enough sleep throughout the year, but most especially during the times that they are focused on exam revision. Help out by stocking the pantry and fridge with suitable food. Try to keep the noise down after about 10pm during the week to ensure that your child can get a restful night’s sleep.

Encourage your child to get organised and informed

Ask your teen to write a list of things that are causing worry and anxiety, and then help to draw up a plan to resolve these issues. Often a lack of clarity and information can make someone feel anxious, so encourage your child to ask questions about the format of the exam, the exam writing process and any other questions they may have, which are causing stress.

If your child is stressed about something that you have control over or can help with, then help to clear things up. For example, if your child is worried about transportation on exam days, try to come up with a plan and outline this for your child so that they can stop worrying about it.

Build your child up

A confident and secure child will do better and feel better than a child who is insecure and suffering from a lack of confidence. Remind your teen that you love them and that you are proud of them. Recognise when your child has tried their best, as opposed to only giving praise when they have met your expectations.

Avoid financial or material rewards for good marks. It’s important that your child learn to feel intrinsically rewarded when they do their best. Also avoid rewards that revolve around food, as this can create complicated relationships with food and emotional states.

Ace it! may not be able to help much with the emotional stress of exams but the study guides can help with exam revision by working out learners’ individual learning style, outlining the content and preparing for exams. The more prepared a learner is for the exams, the less stressed they will feel.

Coping with exam stress

When you are stressed and overwhelmed, seemingly straightforward tasks – like exam revision – can feel so much harder than they should. People cope with stress in different ways – some of these coping mechanisms are healthy, while others are unhealthy and unproductive. Learning to manage your stress, and to use coping mechanisms that will channel those feelings into productive feelings is an important life skill.

Believe it or not, a little bit of stress is a good thing. It keeps us focused and engaged. It also usually shows that we understand the value in something or how important it is. This is why people often feel stressed during exams.

Too much stress, however, can have the opposite effect and leave us feeling overwhelmed. This, in turn, leads to negative behaviours or unhealthy coping mechanisms, which only worsen the situation and create a vicious cycle.

Let’s look at some unhealthy ways of coping with stress:

  • Substance abuse
  • Lashing out at others in anger or frustration
  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Emotional withdrawal from friends and family
  • Procrastination
  • Excessive exercising

When people feel stressed, they are often unable to concentrate on one task at a time. Stress, or feeling overwhelmed, can also lead to insomnia, or problems getting to asleep (or staying asleep). If you’ve ever felt like your mind is racing and you simply cannot calm down, then you are probably suffering from stress.

Learning to deal with stress positively means that you will be able to focus better, feel more relaxed and stay healthy. You will be able to cope with the pressures and demands of exam revision without feeling overwhelmed.

Here are some good ways to cope with stress:

  1. Eat well

A diet that is too high in sugar or unhealthy fat will put additional strain on your body. It’s important to eat a balanced diet, as this will keep your body and brain healthy and in tip-top condition.

  1. Get enough (quality) sleep

Getting enough sleep is essential and will ensure that your brain is rested and able to cope with the demands of exam revision. Teenagers need at least 8 hours of sleep per day, and this sleep should be quality sleep. In order to achieve a really restful night’s sleep, try the following tips:

  • Have a good sleep routine, and stick to it. This will alert your body to the fact that it needs to start shutting down for the day.
  • No electronics before bedtime – read a book instead. Try charging your phone in another room or, at least, putting it on charge somewhere you can’t reach it. Either switch it off, or put it on Night Mode so that it doesn’t beep or light up during the night.
  • Write a to-do list before you get into bed. If you find that your mind races the minute your light is switched off, then try writing a to-do list before you go to bed. This takes the pressure of you because you know that you will deal with everything you need to do in the morning. You can also write in a journal – putting your thoughts on paper can be useful for helping your brain to switch off.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal or drink too many fluids just before bedtime.
  • Cut out caffeine. This includes chocolate and hot chocolate. Sorry.
  1. Stay organised

It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you haven’t got a plan. Make time to put together a comprehensive study timetable. When you feel like you have some control over the situation, you will probably find that you are a little less stressed.

  1. Make time for yourself

Make time in your daily schedule to exercise, relax and spend time with friends and family. Your exam revision is your top priority right now, but that doesn’t mean that you should only study. It’s important for your overall well being to look after yourself and to connect regularly with people who love and support you.

TIP: It may be helpful to disconnect from social media during exam time. The added pressures of social media can add to your stress levels. Rather uninstall the apps for a short period so that you are able to focus on your studies and connecting with people in real life.

  1. Understand that it’s temporary

It’s important for you to remember that this is not going to last forever. Often, when we are in the middle of exam revision, we feel like we cannot see an end to it all. There is one! Hang up a calendar with the day of your last exam circled in red, cross out each day until you get to it – knowing that it’s coming will help you feel less hopeless.

Lastly, if you are feeling overwhelmed or hopeless for a long period of time and if you are having depressive and suicidal thoughts, talk to your parents, teacher, principal, religious or community leader, or contact an organisation like ChildLine. You are not alone.

Work hard, play hard

Your studies should be a top priority for you but there’s one priority that is more important – and it will be the most important priority throughout your life: You!

In this blog post, we explore the importance of having a good balance between studying and relaxing and how to juggle everything you have going on in your life effectively. In a previous blog post, we wrote about how to set up a study timetable for your exam revision. In that post, we discussed setting aside time for relaxation and socialising, as well as time for exercising.

Stress is unavoidable. However, too much stress and stress over a long period of time can have a really negative effect on your health and wellbeing. It can also have a negative effect on your marks! Stress can make it difficult to concentrate, affect your sleep and it could lead to depression and anxiety.

It’s very important that you learn how to balance your studies with fun and relaxation so that you can keep your mind and body in tip-top health.

Being able to manage your time so that you have a balanced life is a life skill that will serve you well long after high school.

Get some sleep

Start with the knowledge that a good night’s sleep is essential for optimal health. Sleep can also have a positive effect on your ability to study harder and remember what you’ve learnt. Don’t be tempted to skip sleep for too many nights in a row. A refreshed and relaxed mind is much better able to manage stress.

Teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per night. You should try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every night and morning.

TIP: If you are struggling to fall asleep, try cutting out caffeine (found in coffee, some teas and even chocolate). If you can’t sleep because you feel stressed, then try writing a to-do list for the next day before bed. This can help to put aside your anxiety for the evening because you know that you will deal with it in the morning.

Exercise – not only for your body, for your mind too

Not only is some form of daily exercise good for your health, it can also help to alleviate anxiety and stress. For many people, exercise is the first thing that gets cancelled when life gets busy. Try not to do this: it’s only 30 minutes to an hour out of your day. In fact, the break might make your studying more effective, and you’ll certainly feel better.

Find a type of exercise that you enjoy. It can be as simple as a 30-minute walk, or it can be an hour-long jog. If you have a gym membership, try out the different classes to see what you enjoy. Most gyms will have yoga classes if you prefer a slower pace, or you could do a fun dance/aerobics class like Zumba.

If you do an extramural sport at school or at a club, this absolutely counts towards your exercise quota for the week! Keep it up!


People who make time to be with their friends and family are generally healthier. Plan ‘dates’ with your parents, siblings or other family members, as well as your close friends. Try to plan activities that everyone will enjoy, such as seeing a movie, going for a long walk, going out for breakfast, etc.

Whatever you do, ensure that you put your phones away and focus on being together.

Spend time with people who make you feel good. It’s no use spending time with someone who drains your energy and makes you feel low.

…but also spend time alone

You also need to think of activities to do that you find relaxing and enjoyable, and that you can do quietly on your own. This is an excellent way to unwind. You could set aside an hour or two of uninterrupted time on a Sunday evening, for example, to relax and prepare yourself for the week ahead.

Some ideas include:

  • Reading a book (that isn’t a setwork!)
  • Reading your favourite magazine
  • Drawing/Writing/Painting
  • Watching your favourite movie
  • Cooking or baking
  • Giving yourself a manicure or pedicure
  • Meditating
  • Listening to a podcast that you enjoy

TIP: Try not to spend your alone time online (especially not on social media). Social media can cause a lot of negative emotions to surface. You should emerge from your alone time feeling refreshed and relaxed, not even more stressed out!

Of course, you do need to study too! Not doing the appropriate amount of revision will cause you more stress, so don’t put it off. There may be times when you aren’t able to schedule any time off for yourself. That’s fine for a short period of time (for example, if you have three assignments due in the same week or a very full exam week) but be sure to set aside a few days or a weekend to unwind once the crunch time is over.