How can I support my child with exam anxiety?

Guest Dr Marny Lishman shares tips on how to reduce stress in the lead up to exam time

This month we spoke with one of our previous My Academy newsletter guests, Dr Marny Lishman, about strategies parents can use to help their child reduce exam anxiety.

With Term 3 underway, there are many Year 12 students working to fine tune their exam and time management techniques in preparation for the fast approaching WACE exams. Similarly, there are Year 10s and 11s working on honing their test skills as they will soon be sitting Mock Exams and tests designed to familiarise them with working under pressure and under strict time constraints. This can be quite daunting, particularly for a cohort of students who have faced a lot of disruptions to their learning. The uncertainty of the past two years has seen an increase in anxiety amongst teenagers and serves as a reminder that it has never been more important for all of us to take steps to manage our mental health and wellbeing. The lead up to exam time is particularly stressful, and parents often want to know how they can best support their child through it.


Here are some of the key tips Dr Lishman suggests to support students with exam anxiety:


  • Normalise that it is a stressful time – Often the first step in supporting someone who is feeling stressed and anxious is to make sure that you validate their feelings. Instead of brushing off their anxiety about upcoming exams because it is a normal part of education and ‘it will all be over soon’, holding space for how your child is feeling about it shows that you care about them, respect their feelings and are not minimising the pressure they are under in comparison to the stresses of adulthood. Sitting with them and listening, and allowing them to vent or talk with you about their anxiety and their experiences in preparing for exams are great ways to help them.
  • Ask them what they need from you – Although you cannot make their stress disappear, there are definitely ways you can support them and the best way to know how to do so is to ask them! Perhaps they need more quiet time in the house so they can better concentrate or a break from their other responsibilities, such as household chores, family activities and their extra-curricular schedule. They may even want some practical help studying – someone to go through flash cards for important definitions and topics with them, listen to them explain tricky concepts and ask questions so they can see where their gaps in knowledge are.
  • Help them set up a ‘study only’ space – It is quite important that students have a dedicated study area free from distractions, noise and the bustle of the home. Helping to set up this space so that is it organised as well as calming (perhaps with a few fun stationery items!) can help students to ‘switch off’ when they are in other areas of the house and ‘switch on’ to focus when they are in the study environment.
  • Encourage sleep – When stressed about school and exams, it is really easy for students to fall into the trap of staying up late to cram, pushing through exhaustion to continue working when what they really need is rest. Sleep consolidates memory and is necessary to keep the brain function as it needs to. Disrupting your sleep cycle to study ends up being detrimental to your ability to think clearly and retain the information you need for the exam!
  • Structure study time to include breaks – Have you ever popped your head in your child’s room to check on their studying habits and been annoyed to find them on their phone or watching a tv show? As well as sleep, brains also need regular breaks in order to function. Parents can get swept up in the pre-exam stress themselves and pressure their children to keep on studying so they have the best chance for success. However, working without breaks tires out your brain and leads to less effective study.
    Dr Lishman suggests that a good technique for ensuring regular breaks is the Pomodoro method. This method involves setting up a 25-minute timer to work in and then taking a 5-minute break; doing something as simple as grabbing a drink, stretching or getting some fresh air. After doing so four times, you should then take a longer break (between 15 and 30 minutes) before returning to your study. Resetting and recharging is an essential part of study so helping hold your child accountable to a break schedule is a great way to support their exam preparation.
  • Encourage movement – Exercise can often be the last thing on someone’s mind when they are stressed. In the lead up to exams students often end up in their study area for hours at a time and not going outside to move and get some sunshine. Someone suffering from a lot of pre-test nerves may not feel up for a long session at the gym or a 10km run but even an occasional 5 minutes of physical activity or low impact exercise is beneficial for combatting anxiety. Inviting your child on a dog walk, or suggesting they have a quick jump on the trampoline during one of their breaks, can really help them to re-energise and relax.
  • Let them ‘let off steam’ – Anxiety often leads people to be more emotional and it increases feelings that we often view as negative, like anger and sadness. Rather than getting annoyed at your child’s moodiness in the lead up to exams, try to not be too hard on them as it is likely to make them feel even worse and lash out! Instead let them vent to you, be understanding and allow them to let off some steam without punishing them for having the same emotional responses we all face when we are under the pump.

Dr Lishman concluded by saying,  “Never has there been a more important time to think about the importance of mental health and the little actions we can take every day to support the people in our lives.”

For further tips on how to help students better prepare for exams and use their study time effectively, see our previous articles: