Our house is a hotbed of exam anxiety at the moment as our eldest is in the final throes of preparing for his A’levels. I have followed all my own advice and even that of others about managing his stress but it is tough – he is worried.
This is it, the culmination of years of hard work and as he sees it the end of the road if he gets it all wrong.
“Is this what panic feels like?” ” I am not going to get those three A’s.” “Who was I trying to kid applying for the Russell Group Universities? I am just not clever enough. ” “I am going to defer and do it next year.”
- The Reality of Pressure
As the days pass this is the conversation that repeats on loop at varying intervals from morning until night. There is no respite. True to his revision timetable he appears like a parrot on my shoulder at 40 minute intervals to either discuss what he has learnt, what he is about to learn or his heightened anxiety.
There is nowhere to hide. I am hunted from dawn until dusk. Such is the plight of the SAHM of a teenager taking exams.
My youngest teenager meanwhile sits in the neighbouring room diligently preparing for her own Year 9 exams and living in constant fear of being shot down in flames if she so much as mentions one syllable of the stress word in his presence.
It is no surprise that our teens are susceptible to moments of self-doubt and anxiety when under so much pressure to succeed. As parents we evidently adopt all the strategies of reassurance at our disposal in the hope that we can allay their fears long enough to get them to walk through the door of the exam room and turn over the paper. I have dug deep this week to placate and reassure him not only of his own ability but of our confidence in his ability. He was worked tirelessly and deserves to be rewarded.
- The Competition Is Tough
The truth, however, is there are no guarantees. Despite thorough revision, every year some pupils do fall short of what they need to go to University and the scramble for clearing places through UCAS commences.
What’s not often talked about, however, is that upwards of 60,000 students use the system every year to find a place at university, and for many of these, it’s a positive experience and out of initial failure comes success.
More than 30 years ago I was one of those students. I can still remember the moment like it was yesterday. Waiting patiently for the postman to deliver the scrap of paper that would deliver the verdict on which course my life would take next. The shock. The disappointment of my parents. The “oh shit” moment, followed swiftly by “what next?”
I phoned my first choice university, they agreed to defer my place if I boosted one of my grades. I did that in the next academic term and then secured various work placements and went travelling. My academic journey took a different pathway but it wasn’t a bad one. It was the best time of my life and benefited me in so many ways.
Personally I don’t want that for our son. I want him to succeed first time around. I was studying humanities. It could be picked up at any point. He on the other hand is a mathematics whizz and in the debate over the gap year option, he was advised to keep at it and surge ahead on the crest of his wave. If, however, like me he doesn’t deliver what he needs we will obviously turn to Plan B and make it work.
In the meantime, the message is clear. “You can only do your best.”
Underlying this however is the fact that he isn’t prepared for disappointment or failure.
“I haven’t failed at anything yet. I wouldn’t know what to do.” These were his words yesterday. I reminded him of my own plight at his age. I wasn’t ready for it either. Nobody is.
- Facing Disappointment and Failure
So how do we prepare our children, our teenagers for disappointment and for failure?
Simply, you can’t. I certainly wasn’t prepared. I knew after my exams that my chances of achieving what was necessary were slim but I hoped I was wrong. Isn’t that what we all do? Hold on to hope. Even if our son messes it up, he will rage for a bit, get hysterical but until the verdict is delivered on the morning of 17th August he will still hold onto hope.
Nothing can prepare you for that punch to the stomach that says “You fell short this time.”
Three years ago our daughter faced disappointment when she didn’t secure a place at her first choice secondary school. In hindsight it was a blessing in disguise but at the time she was beside herself. She has come out a stronger person and unlike her brother is far more balanced in her approach to stress and the possibility of failure.
My mantra in being a mother of teenagers is communication, honesty and sharing. There will be some things that as maturing teenagers they don’t want to disclose but I hope that over the years I have developed a level of trust that guarantees them the assurity of at least one thing and that is my support, our support – that regardless of the outcome we will be there for them in the same way my parents were there for me and still are.
The world may feel like it is ending but it won’t and they will survive.
The truth behind all of this is that you can’t be prepared for failure until it happens. Failure itself is the only thing that teaches you how to cope with it. It doesn’t matter how much we say as parents to reassure our children the harsh cold reality of failure is the only teacher but it doesn’t make them a failure.
An exchange with Alison at Unique Minds Counselling reminded me that persuading our teenagers to “Believe” in themselves is paramount. I know that as a parent I am not alone in that quest and Alison was spot on in her advice “The stress they put themselves under often engulfs them and they can only see life in one direction. I try to encourage them to see that life has many pathways and whatever the outcome of exams – doesn’t define them as a person.”
As featured on HuffPost