In NSW, Australia, this week is the first week of exams for students in the last year of high school. The results are highly influential if the student intends to attend university the following year. For all students it is frequently considered to be both the measure of their success in their thirteen years at school, and the predictor of their future. Of course both beliefs are absolutely inaccurate but still generate high levels of stress for the students, the schools and learning organisations, and the families involved.
The NSW Department of Education publishes the HSC Survival Guide and top of its list for parents is this advice:
Year 12 is a challenging time for kids, as studying for the HSC often coincides with other stressful factors. Support your child by encouraging good sleep, nutrition and physical activity. Have realistic expectations about your child’s performance and goals. Stay calm and positive
You can find those resources here
Set sensible curfews that are not too far from the curfews that exist every other night of the school year. Making young people feel imprisoned and emphasising that this is a make or break time is not helpful however they do need appropriate sleep to manage their stress levels and to allow for maximum memory and concentration capacity.
Dark rooms are what is needed for good sleep. No phones, tablets, laptops or TVs should be in the bedroom during sleep time. This is true for everyone in the house (and all humans) but especially true for those who have particular need of good sleep. This strategy will work best if you follow it too.
Due to the difference in adolescent biorhythms to that of adults and children, the majority of adolescents sleep best from late night to the morning hours. So if they don’t have a morning exam, it is a good time to let them sleep a bit later, within reason. Having said that, you know your child best, second only to them and their knowledge of their bodies. Tune in to what works for them and collaboratively develop a plan.
Now is the time for meal planning in advance. You may want to think about what you are going to feed your HSC candidate over the whole period s/he is doing exams. Stress can make some people find it difficult for some to eat large meals so you might want to think about breaking meals up into courses. This is also the time to provide plenty of healthy snacks and drinks. The temptation to snack on junk food for comfort and ease of access is going to be high but these will decrease the capacity of the body to manage the exam stress AND add their own stress as the body has to work to metabolise them. Some junk food decreases sleep capacity as well creating a double whammy.
Many young people are going to need peer or family support so creating as much social support around meal time as possible is a good idea. Call in your support circle, family friends and grandparents, to help you set up BBQs or buffets or whatever stress relieving meal processes you can manage. Maybe you can eat with other HSC families and support each other.
Alcohol can be a big issue for young people at this time. Schoolies is just around the corner. Alcohol has a negative impact on everyone’s capacity to manage stressful circumstances, no matter what the myths say. It can be a depressant, interferes with healthy sleep and decreases the capacity for optimal memory and concentration capacity. This means that it continues to cause problems. During the HSC period is NOT the time to provide alcohol to your young person. If they are already drinking alcohol socially, it is a good time to discuss the benefits of abstaining for a period.
Young people who are physically active will have more alert brains and will sleep better. They will manage the stress of exams better. If your young person has not been in the habit of routine exercise then you may need to think of some creative ways to incorporate this stress busting strategy.
Playing with the dog, going for a swim, playing Frisbee, beach volleyball, bushwalking, a town exploration walk; all these are great ways of getting physically active without joining an exercise program or team. Of course if your young person has a routine activity, they should continue it throughout the HSC period unless it actually clashes with an exam.
Getting outdoors and into the natural world has real stress busting advantages. There is a great deal of research showing that the beach, bush and other naturally beautiful places make a positive difference to our mental health. Surfing, beach or river swimming (in safe areas), bushwalking, walking in beautiful surroundings, kayaking, and many other activities can take advantage of this.
Once again, getting involved in physical activity yourself makes it more likely that your young person will and makes it more likely that you will find the HSC period a challenge that you fly through.
The job of the exam candidate is to do their best. The job of the parent or carer is to provide a calm and supportive space as both a springboard and resting place.
Many, many young people who struggle with anxiety learn it from one of their parents. The parents’ job during the HSC is to stay calm themselves and to provide a calm space for their HSC candidate. If you think you may struggle to manage this, even with these tips, seek help. Friends and family or other HSC parents may be the appropriate help or you may need to approach your GP. A referral to an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker or other mental health professional may be necessary to build your skills and confidence.
By now you should have a fairly realistic idea of what your child’s capacity is likely to be in the HSC. Stay realistic. Remind your child that you love them and no matter how the HSC turns out you will still love them. No matter what their preferred life and career path is this HSC cannot stop them from achieving that goal. Remind them of their strengths. They are already no doubt focusing on their perceived weaknesses. Where they are bringing up wholly imaginary weaknesses challenge that thinking and give them examples of times they demonstrated how untrue that belief is. For example if John said “I’ve always been rubbish at Maths”, his mum might say “I’m surprised to hear you say that. I can think of several times when you have done very well in Maths. What about when you got 75% in Trigonometry that time?”
Remind stressed young people to smile and smile at them yourself. Whether heartfelt or not the act of smiling releases endorphins (feel good chemicals) into the brain and really does make us feel better, no matter what our age. Also the more smiles we see, the more we are likely to smile. Even if we smile at ourselves in the mirror, we will feel better.
Pets are also a wonderful support. Make sure they are not overlooked as a source of both comfort and physical activity. Being involved with pets stops us from thinking of things that stress as well as being another source of endorphins for the brain. Taking the dog for a run (especially in a nature setting) is the best of all worlds in terms of stress reduction.
Start planning your family celebration for the end of the HSC period. No doubt your child/young person has plans to celebrate with her/his peers. Don’t let that stop you from planning a family celebration. You have all gone through this period together and you all need to celebrate. The celebration is not about the exams per se but to remind you all that even extended exam periods cannot break family bonds; that no matter the outcomes or any incidents that may have occurred during the process, families stick together; you were all affected and you have all come out the other side, together.
Many parents and carers assume that they are no longer important in the lives of their children/young people compared to the peer group. This is absolutely wrong. Think of toddlers who walk away and then come back. They may even hide behind grown up legs before venturing out from and exploring again. But they always come back and they always touch their grown up to reassure themselves that their safe person/s are still there. Adolescents are going through a similar separation period. They need their parents/carers to be there to come back to. Family celebrations emphasise that they can go away and come back. In fact it is the promise of adulthood and separation coming quickly behind it that makes the HSC, and similar exams, such a watershed moment and such a source of stress for all the family members.
The process of planning the family celebration can be a stress reliever in itself. Do not make it the sort of celebration that you need to make stressful preparations for during the exam period. The last thing you all need is added stress during this period. If you are planning a night out at the end, do try to book in advance, as you may not be the only ones.
The old adage is that an ounce of preparation is better than a pound of cure (Benjamin Franklin). If you are reading this and you have children who will be doing their HSC in the future, now is the time to be thinking of how you can add these processes to the family routine. If you don’t have routines, start creating them. If your family doesn’t have a support circle to help you make changes, back you up in crises and celebrate the good times, now is the time to develop them. If you need support to work out how you could do this or deal with the feelings created by thinking about this, see your GP and get a referral to an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker or other mental health professional. To find a social worker that suits you click here
Tomorrow’s blog will give information on what to look out for if you are concerned that something may go wrong. It will also outline how to respond to crises.
If you need emergency assistance in Australia call Lifeline 13 11 14
You can also access Headspace, a mental health support organisation specifically for young people and those who care about them, here