Ask the expert: How can I help son with exam stress?

Many parents organise life around their ‘exam stressed’ young people

Q My 15-year-old son is doing the Junior Cert this year and the stress in beginning to build. Though he generally does reasonably well in the exams, he can get himself into a state worrying about them, constantly saying he can't do it or he is going to fail. It can get to a point where it affects the whole family – he is the eldest – because he becomes irritable and grumpy. It feels like we are all walking on eggshells. He reminds us that the Junior Cert is the biggest exams he will do and I am worried how he will cope. Do you have any tips on helping him manage his stress?

A Young people and teenagers can feel enormous pressure about studying and exams and frequently experience significant signs of stress. These signs can include: anxiety, irritability, disrupted sleep and negative thinking. The trouble with stress is that not only is it unpleasant, but it also makes the problems worse. Stressed young people find it hard to study effectively, even if they are spending long hours trying and stress can reduce their performance when it comes to actually writing exams. Your question also highlights the effect of stress on the wider family. Many parents have spoken to me about how they are organising life around their “exam stressed” young people and sometimes it sets the tone for other children in the family.

Addressing the stress

When you talk to stressed young people, they often talk of how much study they have to do, how little time they have as well as their worry about performance.

As well as listening to and supporting them about their concerns, it is also important to identify and name the stress they are under and shift the conversation to one of managing the stress as well as addressing the study problems. This might mean saying: “You have got really stressed and this is getting in the way of you of studying effectively, let’s look at ways to address this”. Sit down and make a plan with your son that might include the following areas:


Help your son challenge the negative thoughts that underpin his stress. If he says “he never can study” you can ask “is that really true? Remember you got it done the last time, how did you do that?”

Encourage him to come up with more balanced thoughts to his negative one such as, “I’m just feeling a bit anxious, this helps me prepare – I know I can do it” or “I will do my best and enjoy the process”.

Sometimes it can be helpful to write these new thoughts out on coping cards that he can refer to while he is studying.

Teach your son relaxation techniques such as calming his breathing by counting in and out breaths, or visualising a relaxing space while listening to music that he can practice and draw upon, either before or after a period of study.

Create a balanced routine

Often the secret to managing exam stress is establishing a good weekly routine with your son that includes time for rest and relaxation as well as study. It can include the following:

Most importantly, agree a routine of going to bed early and help your son get into the habit of doing something relaxing that is non-study related just before he sleeps (reading a novel, listening to music).

Punctuate study with breaks and encourage your son to go out for a walk, run or do some other exercise he enjoys.

Create a balanced weekly routine which includes time for at least one sport, one social activity and another enjoyable interest to counterbalance an over-focus on study.

Encourage him to take time out to eat well and to include fresh fruit and vegetables in his diet instead of junk food. Make sure he drinks plenty of water rather than sugary or caffeine drinks as he studies.

Effective study habits

Many children employ ineffective study habits, which only add to their stress and a lack of a sense of accomplishment. You can act as coach to your son in ensuring he has a more effective approach using the following steps:

Help your son find a good place to study without distractions. This can be a special place in the home or else your son might prefer the library or do supervised study in the school.

Encourage your son to make a detailed study plan for the coming months up until the exams as to what subjects he plans to study and in what order. Then translate this long-term plan into weekly goals for each subject and a realistic plan of what they want to cover in each study session.

Encourage your son to use creative study techniques such as colourful “mind maps” to summarise learning.

It helps if you take an interest in his study plans and have time to “check in” about his plans as he sits down to study and then being there to review progress at the end.

Get more help if needed

If you feel your son is struggling in one area of study, do encourage him to talk to the teacher about this and/or to get some extra support if that helps. It also could help for him to attend a short study skills or stress management course. Family life goes on

While being supportive of your son during this time, you are right to not let his stress interrupt family life and take away from your needs or those of your other children. Over the coming months, set positive goals for what you want to do for each of your children and your family as a whole that have nothing to do with his exam stress. If at times his stress starts to dominate, try to put a boundary around this: “We can talk about your study later, now we are doing this as a family’’.

Learn to unhook from his stress, and get on with life and other family concerns.

Dr John Sharry is a mental health professional and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering a series of talks on promoting self-esteem and overcoming anxiety in children in Dublin on Mondays starting on 11th April. See for details.