The month of May is already upon us, and it’s that time of year again. Not the time to be thinking about summer holidays and family trips, but the time our teenage students sit their GSCEs and A-levels. Every adult who has been through this can probably still remember what this means in terms of stress and pressure.
Stress v Anxiety
Stress in teens is a normal, adaptive emotion. Stress is the feeling that is caused by a specific factor, like exams, sports competitions, and relationship issues. But stress can become overwhelming and become what we call “anxiety”. Anxiety is a feeling of being stressed that continues even when the stressor is gone. Over the past few years, in the UK, the number of counselling sessions delivered by Childline (a phone counselling service for youths and adolescents) has risen by 11%. The group age most likely to be counselled about exam stress is 12-15 years old, but last year (2016-2017) saw a huge rise of 21% in counselling among 16-18 years olds.
Keeping a watchful eye
As a parent, your role is to support your adolescent to the best of your ability throughout this difficult, stressful time. You have to be present for your child, and keep a close eye on his/her behavior and emotions. If your teenager is sleeping less than 8-9 hours per night, has a decreased appetite, is neglecting physical activity, is becoming more socially isolated; it is your job to help them restore the balance even throughout this busy time. Sometimes, suggesting seeing the school counsellor can be helpful, as they are used to deal with students with exam stress.
Many parents will ask me when they should be concerned about their teenager being under so much stress. Exam stress is not to be brushed off or underestimated. It can lead to depression and anxiety, panic attacks, low self-esteem or feelings of being a failure, self-harming and suicidal thoughts, and worsening of mental health conditions that could already be present. Therefore, if your child becomes withdrawn, irritable, develops insomnia, has crying fits or comes to you with feelings of being burnt out and overwhelmed, or is displaying self-harm behavior (cutting, etc.) this is an appropriate time to bring him in to see your family doctor.
Reaching out for support
Your family doctor is a good resource as we are used to dealing with stress and anxiety in adolescents, and can offer you many different solutions to deal with the issue. Sometimes, just ongoing support and regular appointments with your family doctor will suffice, along with some advice about restoring some lifestyle balance (sleep, exercise, hydration, nutrition, study breaks, etc). Sometimes when stress has become severe (anxiety), we can work in a team with a psychologist or a counsellor to give your adolescent useful tools to deal with his emotions.
A lot of parents will ask me about medication, and even though most teenagers will not require any medications to be prescribed, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can sometimes be an adjunct to lifestyle management and counselling in severe cases of anxiety or depression.
As a parent, the best thing you can do for your teenage child is to be supportive of them during this extremely stressful time. We all want the best for our children, but try not to place unnecessary pressure on your children to obtain certain grades and results. Encourage them to take regular study breaks, eat nutritious meals and snacks, exercise and make sure they get restorative sleep. Help them get ready for exams by giving them time and space to study. Be available to your child if they need to talk about their worries and frequently check in with them to make sure they are doing alright.
And remember, while this is a difficult period to go through as a family, it will all be over in a few of months and you will get well-deserved holiday time as a family!
Dr Méli Noël is based at IMC Jelita.
Dr Méli has a special interest in teenagers and has worked in teen support centres in Canada.
For appointments please call: 6465 4440