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Nobody likes exams. But some teens find them particularly stressful and difficult. Here are some tips for helping young people cope with exam stress, and what to do if it all gets a bit too much.

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How can I tell if my teen is stressed?

It’s totally normal to worry about exams. A bit of stress can even be a good thing if it motivates your child to focus on their schoolwork and revision. But too much stress can leave young people exhausted, upset and unable to concentrate or sleep – and that’s not good for anyone. 

Here are some signs that your child may be stressed:

  • they seem moody, emotional or teary, or easily upset
  • they talk about themselves in a negative way, for example, saying that they’re stupid or a failure
  • they can’t focus on their work
  • they’re irritable or short-tempered 
  • they have physical symptoms, like feeling sick, shaky, sweaty, breathless or dizzy, or getting break-outs of spots and other skin conditions 
  • they aren’t sleeping well
  • their appetite or eating habits change.

Some teens may not show any obvious signs of stress, but may be hiding or repressing their anxiety. So trying the tips below is still a good idea.

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How to help your teen cope with exam stress

The good news is, there are lots of things you can do to help your teen manage stress and do their best to prepare for their exams.

Tip #1: Help them feel good about themselves

When young people feel good about themselves, they’re more likely to face the challenges of exam time confidently. You can find lots of tips for helping to build your child’s self-esteem and resilience here. 

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Tip #2: Help them find ways to cope

We all have different ways of coping with stress – some healthy, some not so! Encourage them to find something healthy that works for them, whether that’s breathing exercises, mindfulness, talking to someone about their worries, heading outdoors or putting on some music and dancing! 

There are lots more suggestions on NHS Inform’s Mind to Mind website – maybe you could have a look at this together. 

These articles on exam stress from Mind and YoungMinds may also be helpful for them.

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Tip #3: Encourage them to stick to a routine

Building a routine that balances work and rest will really help your teen through this challenging time. So try to encourage them to make a plan that allows time for seeing family and friends, a bit of exercise, healthy meals and plenty of sleep as well as study. Planning their days should help prevent last minute, panics and help them stay calmer.

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Tip #4: Help them eat healthily

When young people are revising, it can be very tempting from them to nibble on biscuits and crisps and glug down energy drinks! Try to discourage this and suggest some healthier options they could try, like nuts, seeds, fruit, yoghurt or herbal tea, along with the occasional treat of course! And try to make sure they have three healthy meals a day, at regular times. 

You can find lots of easy, cheap, nutritious recipes for meals and snacks in our recipe section.

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Tip #5: Encourage them to keep moving

Try to ensure that they take regular breaks from studying to move around, maybe give the body a good shake to release tension, or try some stretching exercises (have a look on YouTube for some inspiration). 

If the weather isn’t too awful, a bit of time outside in the fresh air can work wonders for clearing the head and can also give them a much-needed energy boost. 

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Tip #6: Help them unwind before bedtime

It’s a good idea to encourage your teen to relax and unwind before they go to bed – this will help them sleep better. You could suggest they do something that doesn’t involve looking at a screen, like listening to music or a podcast, or doing some gentle bedtime yoga or meditation. Take a look at Young Scot’s mindfulness playlist on YouTube for some more ideas.

If you can, encourage them to make their bedrooms a device-free zone before they go to sleep, to avoid the temptation of late night notifications.

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Tip #9: Make sure they get plenty of sleep

Teen boy in bed, yawning

Did you know that most teens need 8-10 hours sleep a night? Sleep helps their brain sort out what they’re learning, link it all together and form memories, so it’s just as important as studying.

In particular, encourage them to get a good night’s sleep the night before an exam – if they stay up trying to cram extra info into their heads, they won’t be able to concentrate properly the next day.

Our page of sleep tips for older children and teens has more advice.

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Tip #10: Try not to put too much pressure on them

Of course you want your kid to do well in their exams. But putting too much pressure on them can backfire if it makes them too stressed to concentrate and work. Instead of talking about how important the exams are, let them know you love them and are proud of them for trying, no matter what happens. 

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Tip #11: Remind them it’s totally normal to feel worried about exams

Nobody likes exams, so if they’re feeling stressed or upset, it’s good to remind them that they’re not alone, and that this time will pass.

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Tip #12: Try not to compare them

We’re all good at different things, and we all learn and study in different ways too, so try not to compare them to their friends or brothers or sisters, or to yourself when you were their age. 

This quiz from the Open University helps you work out your study style – you could both try it together and see if you learn in different ways.

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Tip #13: Suggest ways they can reward themselves when the exams are over

This will give them something to look forward to and remind them that there’s life after the exams!

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Tip #14: Remind them that their results don’t define them

If they’re worried that failing their exams will ‘ruin their life’, try to help them put things into perspective. You could remind them that they can always resit their exams, and that there are lots of different ways into work and a career – there’s no ‘wrong path’. 

It may help to have a look at the following website together and together – this may help them realise there’s more to life than exams:

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Tips for helping them study

Tip #1: Ask them what you can do to help

What will make it easier for them to study? Maybe it’s bringing them a drink or snack and reminding them to take a break every now and then. Or maybe it’s testing them on what they’ve learnt so far. Or just leaving them in peace! 

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Tip #2: Make sure they have time and space to study

Teen girl revising for exams in her bedroom

This may involve helping them find a quiet spot at home or maybe in your local library, or keeping younger siblings busy – our activities and games pages have lots of suggestions for this. And it could involve being flexible about the chores they usually do, and asking younger siblings to help out more. 

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Tip #3: Encourage them to start early

Sometimes getting started can be the hardest thing. Encourage them to start small, when the exams still seem quite far away. Spending a bit of time on revision every day or so will help them feel more in control.

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Tip #4: Help them make a revision timetable or plan

Having a plan that sets out what to revise and when will make it easier for them to get on with studying rather than worrying about it. 

To make a plan, break the work down into small, manageable chunks. This will make it feel more achievable and help them feel more confident that they’ve got this.  

You can find lots more revision tips on the BBC Bitesize website, including a timetable template you can download. You can also find helpful tips and guidance in the Your Exams guide provided by SQA.

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Tip #5: Help them find what works for them

There are lots of different ways to revise – using flashcards, reading notes out loud, making mindmaps and even singing things to favourite tunes! Encourage them to have a look at some of the different techniques on the BBC Bitesize website and see what works best for them.

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Tip #6: Remember to plan in time to relax

Revising is important, but so is having fun with the family and their friends and doing things they enjoy. 

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What to do if they won’t study

There are lots of reasons why teens can be reluctant to get down to revision.  If you can, try to talk to them about it. Pick your time carefully – if can help if you’re doing something else while you talk, like walking, driving or cooking, as this takes the pressure off. It may take a few goes before they open up to you, but don’t give up. Our page on talking and listening to your teen has more tips for this kind of conversation.

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Tips to persuade your teen to study

Here are some ways you may be able to persuade them to get on with some work. And remember, while there are lots of things you can do to support your teen through their exams, in the end it’s up to them to take responsibility for their studies and learn from their mistakes.

They don't know where to start

If they’re always putting off their revision, it may be because they don’t know how to start. Making a timetable and looking at different ways to revise may help (see tips 4 and 5 above) – but try to make sure that colouring in a fancy chart doesn’t become another way of putting off actual revising!

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Studying makes them feel anxious

If you find your teen ends up feeling frustrated, anxious or wound up when they try to revise, try our tips for helping them cope with exam stress further up the page. For example, you could suggest they start their study session with some simple breathing exercises like these ones on the Mind to Mind website.

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It's boring

Chances are your teen has a huge list of things they’d rather be doing than revising. So make sure they plan in time to do fun things so they have something to look forward to. Then try to make them to switch off their phone and/or games console while they’re working. 

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They don't see the point

In this case, talking to them about what they’re going to do when they leave school may help motivate them. Remind them that the skills needed to pass exams – like focus, discipline and organisation – will help them in any walk of life.

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If exams are affecting your teen's behaviour

Exam stress can affect young people in different ways. You may find your teen gets upset more easily, or that they’re grumpy or angry. They may take their stress out on you and the rest of the family. 

If this happens, it’s good to be understanding and cut them some slack, but they also need to understand that exams don’t give them a free pass to behave badly. You may need to sit down with them and have a chat. You could talk about:

  • why they’re worried about their exams
  • whether anything else is preying on their mind
  • how their behaviour is affecting other family members, and how this isn’t fair
  • what you can do to help.

Our page on talking and listening to your teen has more advice to help you get through to them. This page from YoungMinds has advice on helping teens deal with angry emotions positively.

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Looking after yourself

Exam time can be stressful for you as well as your teen, so make sure you look after yourself too. It’ll be much harder to support your child through their exams if you’re stressed and exhausted yourself. 

Our pages on looking after your mental health and coping with parenting when you’re raising a teen have advice that can help.

It’s a good idea to plan something fun and relaxing you and your teen can do together, so all your time together isn’t spent focusing on exams.

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As part of the National e-Learning Offer, e-Sgoil offers support that complements support available through schools.

e-Sgoil offers 50 weekly evening Study Support webinars for Senior Phase learners during term time, covering a wide range of subjects and levels. The full webinar programme, as well as supporting materials and information about how to register, is available on the e-Sgoil website

e-Sgoil are also taking registrations now for their programme of daytime Easter Study Support webinars.

97% of learners attending Study Support last Easter reported that the webinars increased their confidence and reduced their anxiety ahead of final exams, with almost all learners rating their webinar experience as "excellent". Easter Study timetables and registration details are available here.

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What to do if exam stress becomes overwhelming

It’s perfectly normal for your teen to feel anxious about their exams. But if stress and worry are stopping them getting on with their day-to-day life and preventing them from preparing for their exams then they may need more support.

Talk to their school

Their school is there to help – they want your teen to do well too! So get in touch with the school and see if there’s anything else they can do to help, like:

Talk to your GP

If you’re worried about your teen’s mental health, you can always talk to your GP about it. Our page on getting support when you’re raising a teen has more information and advice.

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If your child needs extra help with exams

If your child has additional support needs they may be entitled to extra help around exams and assessments. This includes if they’re struggling with their mental health and finding exams particularly stressful. Our page on getting support with exams has more information. 

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Further information

To find out more about National Qualifications in Scotland and see this year's exam timetable, visit the SQA website.

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