So your kid is kicking off with exam stress, slamming doors, yelling, sulking, refusing to do their revision. Nicely-nicely hasn’t worked and you’re ready to yell. What can you do?
We all know how easy it is to lose our rag when our kids kick off. But when exam stress is involved, the stakes are raised. We start telling ourselves stories about how, if they fail the exams, they’ll miss out on opportunities, they’ll drown in self-loathing and the world will fall apart.
Our extra few decades on the planet mean we can see the mountain they are carefully constructing from the molehill, but they’re blind to it.
And here’s the thing: once a child (or adult!) is stuck in stress, there’s no reasoning with them – literally. Their body has kicked off its stress responses, flooding their system with cortisol and adrenalin, redirecting blood from the problem-solving pre-frontal cortex in the brain to the primal part that is trying to decide whether you are more or slightly less dangerous than a sabre toothed tiger.
Logic and reasoning won’t cut it. They’re stuck in the emotions.
And there’s no point in forcing them to revise in this state – even if you could – it would be a waste of time.
And biting your tongue – metaphorically, I hope – will trigger even more of your stress response, as you force down the emotions you are feeling, too, making a mutual volcanic eruption much more likely.
There are plenty of things you can do to help your child, once they have calmed down enough to accept that help (e.g. 7 1/2 Quick Fixes For Exam Stress). But how can you keep your cool, while the storm passes? We all know that yelling back will only make it worse.
Here’s a technique I used to teach my researchers when I was head of market research – and I later discovered it’s a classic mindfulness technique, too.
When my team was interviewing people, we realised how our own inner dialogue would get in the way of really listening – hearing what the interviewees were saying. Our desire to build rapport or to get more details or just nervousness would cause researchers to interrupt interviewees or to quick-fire another question, the moment the interviewee paused.
But the gems came just after the silence.
So I taught my team this:
Breathe in and breathe out, before you respond. (Silently! No teenage sighs allowed!)
In market research, it created space for the subconscious motivators to bubble up and that was where the gold dust lay.
With an exam-stressed child, it gives them the space to feel heard. It helps them to feel safe. You are being present, instead of launching the attack they are fearing.
Even more importantly, it takes us out of our inner six-year-old’s coping strategies. As young children, we learn how to handle anger and stress in the best way we can, but these strategies often get stuck and we’re still using them in our forties and beyond.
The deep breath in and out does the following for you:
Your child is feeling stressed, scared, overwhelmed or angry (or all of these) and they don’t know how to handle that emotion. The last thing they need is to feel rejected or criticised. That will just lead to them bottling this up next time and hiding it from you.
As the Native Americans say:
All criticism is borne of someone else’s pain.
If your child is stuck in exam stress and is lashing out, there’s no point in taking it personally. It’s just that they don’t currently have any other way of dealing with the pain and other powerful emotions they’re currently feeling.
What they need most in the world right now is to know that you care, unconditionally. With you, they’re safe to process this outburst, to let these emotions out. If they’re a teen, the emotions will be mixed with masses of hormones as their body changes at the fastest rate since they were a toddler.
It doesn’t make their projection of their anger at you ok. But it does mean they need our compassion, not our criticism.
When we let go of our need to be right and we show compassion, not criticism, it opens up a new world of possibilities to help our kids solve their exam stress.Click To Tweet
And once their stress levels have reduced (it can take as little as a minute), they will be more open to the solutions and suggestions you have to offer.
One of the most powerful ways to help them to clear the stress hormones that flood their body when they’re angry is a grounding breath, which you can find in technique #1 of the 7 1/2 Quick Fixes For Exam Stress course.
All of the techniques in the course work as soon as your child is calm enough to try them.
How did you get on with this technique, once you have tried it?
What else has worked for you, to help you keep your cool when your kid is kicking off with exam stress?
Got questions? Insights?
I’d love to hear from you, via the comments.
And if you found this article useful, please share it far and wide with others who might find it helpful.
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Clare Josa has spent the past 15 years teaching over a million people to feel less stressed and to make the difference they are really here to make in the world. But when her eldest son hit exam stress - hard - she decided she had to do something to help parents to help their kids, and How to Beat Exam Stress was born. Clare is the author of five life-changing books and her recent debut novel, You Take Yourself With You, has been described by readers as 'unputdownable'.
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