Managing exam crises for parents/carers


Has your child/young person come home from an exam distressed and anxious?  Are you wondering what to do and say?  Are you trying to work out how to set up your relationship and home so that such a scenario could be managed if it became necessary?

stressed HSC student

In NSW it is HSC time.  As students come to the end of their thirteen years of compulsory schooling, they have to contend with the public exam process.  This puts tremendous pressure on them, their schools and their families. The media is full of stories of poor mental health outcomes and warnings for parents but short on exactly what to do.  None of this is helpful to worried parents.

As a mental health professional who has been working with adolescents for over twenty five years, here are some tips as to what to look for and how to manage any concerns, minor or major.

Your child’s job at exam time is to do the best they can.  The parent or carers’ job is to provide a calm, supportive space that can be a refuge if necessary.  For tips on how that can be achieved click here.

Signs of problems

None of these are of concern on their own but as a group they are of concern.  If you are worried that your child is showing signs of anxiety or depression do not wait, get assistance immediately.  You can approach your school counsellor or visit your GP for a referral to an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker or other mental health professional for assistance.

  • irritability
  • tiredness
  • poor concentration
  • poor short-term memory
  • recurring worrying thoughts
  • lack of tolerance for others
  • anxiety about little things
  • listlessness
  • tendency toward bursts of anger and tears
  • indications of feeling ‘down’, alone or misunderstood
  • disturbed sleep
  • indigestion, poor appetite.


Many people pass off explosive reactions or deep distress in young people as attention seeking, drama or just hormones.  This is not true.  This is not ‘normal’ or ‘average’ behaviour for teens any more than for adults.  They need assistance immediately if they are in ‘a state’.


If your young person becomes highly distressed by something that happens during the HSC period you can use the crisis intervention strategy below to manage it.  If you are worried that you will forget parts of it, don’t be.  The critical parts are to listen, assure that you are taking the problem seriously and reassure that because you care you will be working with the distressed person to resolve the issue.  Those are the central parts and you can seek assistance with the rest.  But most parents/carers can manage this process really well if they can stay calm themselves.  For reminders on managing your own anxiety click here

coffee and talk


  1. Clarify what they see as the problem
  2. Ensure safety – whether it is physical or psychological – take whatever steps are necessary to keep your young person safe.
  3. Tell your young person that you care about them and you will work to resolve the problem with them
  4. Examine the alternatives
    1. Who might help with getting through the current crisis?
    2. What actions or behaviours can your young person use to get through the current crisis? What resources do they have?
    3. Is there another way of thinking about the current crisis that makes it seems less critical?
  5. Make a Plan
  6. Get a Commitment


This sounds complicated but might look like this:

Georgia comes home and is convinced she has failed her exam.  She is semi hysterical.

LISTEN – Don’t tell her she is overreacting

  1. She also thinks that means she will not get into uni and will never be able to pursue her preferred career – her heart’s desire.

  2. She is not suicidal or planning to hurt herself right now. Mum/Dad/carer knows because they asked.

  3. Georgia was told she is loved no matter what and Mum/Dad/carer can understand why she feels so upset and will help her sort this out.

  4. Examining the Alternatives

    1. Helpers – Mum/Dad/carer, teachers, school counsellor

    2. Actions, behaviours and resources

      1. Immediate calm

        1. Georgia has done yoga breathing.

        2. She can use the Headspace app if she needs help

        3. Mum/Dad/carer will do breathing or app with her if she needs support

      2. De-stress

        1. Get friends to go for a run with her

        2. Invite her favourite aunt to dinner

      3. When she is calm (even if it is tomorrow morning), write down everything she remembers about her answers so she can consult with her teachers.
      4. Alternative stories
        1. although Georgia has struggled with the written portion of this subject before she has passed on other parts of the work that she has presented. There seems no reason that this would not continue to be true.

        2. Even if Georgia did not pass this subject, it is not necessarily true that she would fail her HSC.

        3. Even if Georgia did fail her HSC it does not mean that a) she could not redo it or b) she could not get her dream career by another pathway.

  5. Mum/Dad/carer and Georgia make a plan for everything that will happen over the next 24 hours including what supports and activities Georgia will get, which teacher Georgia will speak to tomorrow, who Georgia will contact (and how) if she becomes distressed again. A list of numbers is given to Georgia that may include Kids Helpline.  An agreement is made about what friends and family will be pulled in to help and exactly what they will be told.  An agreement is made that Mum/Dad/carer can call for help if they consider it necessary.

  6. Either Georgia repeats the plan back and then agrees to it or it is written down and both parties sign it.  It gets reviewed when the 24 hours is over. 

For some young people the crisis is completely situational and, once managed, is of no concern again.  In fact it can be something of a blessing in disguise because it can teach the young person, and the family, that they have the skills to get through crises and manage them successfully.  In future crises, Georgia might be reminded, or remind herself, of the strategies she used, put them in place again and develop an increasing belief in her own competence.  This is resilience.

For other young people this is a warning sign or part of a pattern of concerning behaviour and moods.  If this is so then consult a GP and access an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker or other mental health professional for assistance.  If you have concerns that your young person is dismissing or that other people around you are dismissing, act on them.  Speak to your GP or contact Headspace or other mental health service to get appropriate advice for your situation.

Remember, the majority of students and families come through the HSC with no lingering issues.  If you are concerned that may not be true for your young person or family contact your GP and ask for a referral to an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker or other mental health professional.

To find the social worker that suits you click here

You can access Headspace here or find their free app in the App Store or Play Store.

If you need emergency assistance in Australia call Lifeline 13 11 14

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