Next week, teenagers up and down the country will be sitting their GCSE mocks.
This may come as a surprise to those of you who don’t have a 15- or 16-year-old in the house and have been blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama being played out behind closed doors.
But for those who do have such a creature hibernating behind a closed bedroom door, the weeks since the end of the summer must have felt a little like watching a gathering storm edging every closer.
These days, Year 11 pupils (that’s the 5th Year for those of us who still work in old money) are under pressure to do well from the moment they walk through the door of their secondary school as a fresh-faced 11-year-old. And they’re under pressure to perform measurably well.
Whether little Johnny or Jennifer end up in the top set or a mixed ability set in French is no longer down to the arbitrary decision of a mere teacher using years of experience to gauge both achievement in the present and the potential of the future. Johnny and Jennifer are now assessed and tested to determine the probably limit of their academic aspirations.
I’ve talked at length before about why I think SATs and other tests have an unacceptable impact on children’s mental health and, if you missed it, you can read that here, so I’m not going to rehash those arguments here.
Instead, I want to focus on why parents who talk about their children suffering ‘exam stress’ might be in danger of misdiagnosing what’s going on in their child’s head.
As a society, we tend to talk a lot about how stressed we are. We say we’re ‘stressing about what to wear’, when we actually mean we’re undecided or struggling to decide; we feel irritated by the fact the house is a mess, but translate that frustration as, ‘I’m feeling a bit stressed out about the cleaning; a difficult commute to the office becomes a ‘stressful journey’
We offer stress as a go-to rational explanation for our children’s challenging behaviour as well. Being ‘stressy’ is almost a euphemism for the blizzard of hormones in a teenage body.
In fact, stress has become the ultimate euphemism of the modern age. We hear and see it everywhere. And the plain fact of the matter is that the euphemistic stress which parades in our lives as a convenient catch-all for any mildly irksome situation has a massive devaluing effect on real stress that affects children and adults in ways most people can barely begin to imagine.
If you want to know what your ‘stressed’ pre-exam child is really feeling, then let me help you out: they feel a profound sense of fear. From their first registration, they have been conditioned to succeed. Failure has never been an option in a world where tables and rankings and Ofsted inspections rule.
And so failure becomes the bogeyman hiding under the bed at night. What if I fail? What if I fail? What if I fail? They are terrified of what their teachers will think, of what their parents will thing and, probably most importantly, of what their friends will think. It gnaws and gnaws away at self-esteem and self-confidence and self-worth and it promotes reclusive and reticent behaviour.
The reason your child won’t talk to you has nothing to do with it being their job to hate their parents; they’re not talking because they don’t want to admit to you that they’re worried, because if they do that, the crisis of confidence will actually be real.
And so they internalise it and what you see are the behavioural and emotional symptoms that manifest themselves as surliness or sulkiness. And we label this perceived attitude problem as stress because that seems to fit.
If you’re sitting there worrying that you’ve mistaken fear for stress, welcome to a very large and illustrious club: the majority of parents of GCSE-age children are fellow members. The problem is, there’s very little support available for parents to manage themselves and their children through the most challenging year of school life.
So, what can you do to help? Well, obviously hypnotherapy is an option and if you’d like to talk to us about how our treatments can help you and your child or children, we’d love to hear from you.
But in general day to day life, validation, recognition and reassurance goes a long way. Children need to understand they have a worth that transcends academic achievement. Repeat the mantra that their best is always good enough. Make them take a break from the books and enjoy more of the fleeting time they have as young people. Give them a hug and tell them you love them and are proud of them, whatever their results. Offer your help with revision, but allow them to refuse. Within reason, choose to interpret their infuriating outbursts as essential venting rather than rank insolence and ingratitude (even though it may actually be both of those things and more). Praise their achievements and meet failure with sanguinity.
In short, be there for them now and make sure they know you’re there for them every day. It goes a lot further than you might think.