How to survive the Leaving Cert a parent

Exam season isn’t easy for anyone in the home, so how can you get yourself and your family through it?

June 8th is a date that has been seared into their minds for a long time now. It evokes feelings of rising anxiety and dread, coupled with a sense of powerlessness over what lies ahead.

And that’s just the parents of the approximately 120,000 students who will be sitting their State exams this year.

We may joke about parents who you would swear were doing the exams themselves, so worked up are they about what poets are likely to come up on English Paper Two and whether the topic of a well-prepared Irish essay will be included. But, in all seriousness, it is a real test of parenting when there’s an exam student in the house – particularly when they’re sitting the Leaving Certificate.

"No matter how good you are at maintaining boundaries and keeping anxiety in check, you are subjected to this 'environment'," says Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin.

As a father who has been through it himself with two daughters, he says that you are attending events leading up to your child leaving school and, inevitably, all the talk among parents is about the exams, the points system and what college their offspring are hoping to attend.

“It is really difficult to stay detached from that – you can’t stay detached,” he says. However, you have to try to avoid adding your own anxiety to the pressure the exam student is already under.

That pressure comes from all sides and, while the media is a popular scapegoat in this regard, Gilligan says that a lot of exam-related anxiety is self-induced and often the greatest pressures come from parents. However, the other parenting extreme, of being too nonchalant, can backfire too; young people may regard it as not caring about them. So you need to find a balance.

"The most important thing around balance is self-awareness. If parents are self-aware, then they have a better chance of being able to maintain balance and also help young people develop their self-awareness," says Gilligan, author of the book Raising Emotionally Healthy Children.

Much of the pressure comes from students themselves, agrees Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, but also from parents whose "expectations are not in line with their child's ability".

At this stage, all parents can do is support students, she says, reminding them that the work is done, that they should have confidence in themselves and use the time left to practise test papers and focus.

“With five weeks to go, they still have loads of time to make progress,” she adds.

It's a matter of saying you trust them to study, says Eileen Keane Haly, of Jumpstart your Confidence, a Cork-based mentoring service for children, teenagers and parents.

However much we may want to lock them in a room and make them study, there are no positives to that approach.

“I think it drives them insane this constant ‘What have you done? What are you doing?’ The pressure is coming from everywhere and they don’t need it constantly at home.”

So what other advice do these three experts have for exam-hassled households?

Keep the home calm

Parents control the atmosphere in the house and the relationship issues, says Keane Haly. As mother of four girls, aged 12 to 19, she has been through two State exams and has seen the effects of making some changes.

For instance, she recommends not hosting playdates for younger children during the run-up to exams.

“We have to make home a calm place. I am not one for mollycoddling but, to give them a fair chance, don’t have smallies jumping up and down outside on the trampoline when they are trying to study.”

Stay calm yourself

As discussed above, this is easier said than done. But parental stress is “only going to aggravate the situation and increase the pressure”, says McLaughlin. “It’s time to stand back now – it’s the student’s exams.”

Keep it in perspective

Let them know that these exams will not define them and that we love them whatever the results, says McLaughlin. And there are always options – alternative ways to get to college or do something outside the college system.

Stick to routine

Block-booking weeks off work to “shepherd” your child through exams is a bit OTT. “To say ‘I can’t work because you are doing your exams’ has a hint of ‘catastrophising’ the situation,” says McLaughlin.

“They love to meet their friends on their bus and there is a support system there among students, and parents can’t even enter that world.”

Gilligan says, “Normality is really important.” At the same time, being able to give extra supports where they are needed during the exams, such as a lift or a listening ear, is no harm either.

Encourage them not to miss school

In the last weeks, students often argue that they will get more done studying at home rather than going to school. But McLaughlin maintains that important revision and exam preparation is still being done in the last days of term.

“Psychologically, too, they are better off staying in school,” she says, where there is the support network of peers and teachers.

Don’t take things personally

Try to remember when your child is “cracking up and letting off” that’s it’s not personal, says Keane Haly. Parents are the only people they can unleash their stress on but our reaction will determine whether there’s going to be an ongoing argument for days or, if we just walk away and take a deep breath, it will just slide by.

Alleviate stress

Do what you can to reduce your child’s stress rather than add to it. They certainly don’t need any “geeing up” at this stage.

“This is a major event for every young person, whether they have worked or not,” says Gilligan.

McLaughlin warns that too much stress will immobilise them from achieving their potential; their ability to take in, recall and apply information will suffer.

Let them have life balance

Allow them to participate in sport and see friends right up to the start of the exams.

“It is a support system as good as anything else,” says McLaughlin. “When they come in they are happier, more energised by meeting their pals. That social dimension is so important .”

Watch out for the vulnerable

The mocks is the time when young people can run into acute stages of anxiety or depression, says Gilligan. “It is a time when things start to unravel if they are going to unravel.” Reflect on and learn from this experience.

Most young people will cope with exam stress; problems can arise where a young person has other vulnerabilities, such as a history of mental health issues, or something has been going on in their lives in the past year – a loss, difficulties with their friends, relationship breakdown, and so on.

However, it’s wrong to assume that youngsters with mental health issues are going to “blow it” at exam time, he says. All the skills and techniques that are built around the recovery model of mental health are designed to equip them to live a fulfilling life, which includes sitting exams.

Stress the importance of sleep

Keane Haly says the feedback she gets in schools about sleep “is the one thing that freaks me out” and that sleep disturbance is a “huge, huge problem”. Typically about 80 per cent of students say they keep their phones on all night.

Parents need to talk about why we need sleep and what happens if we don’t get enough. Ask youngsters are they going to switch off their phones at night for at least these last few weeks.

Look beyond the exams

Remember that 5.15pm on July 1st is the deadline for the “change of mind” alterations to the CAO forms. As 6,275 students have registered this year without putting down any college choices, they, at least, will be starting their preferences from scratch.

Make sure the CAO form is filled up properly, says Keane Haly. “I think a lot of first-time parents don’t realise the importance of choices down the line.

“Your top four may disappear in five minutes and you are left with [options] six, seven and eight and they might have just been thrown in there.”

Prepare for results

With the Leaving Certificate results expected on Wednesday, August 17th, and the first round of CAO offers due the following Monday, it is no time for students to be out of the country, says McLaughlin.

“They have big decisions to make and only a week to accept or reject a choice.” Every year she takes calls on the Leaving Certificate national helpline from parents whose son or daughter is abroad and they are wondering how they can accept a course on their behalf.

Students might also want to look at one or more of their exam scripts and appeal the marking, McLaughlin says. Nobody else but the student can do this.

Keane Haly recommends having a chat beforehand with your partner, or an older sibling, about the possibilities “if things go pear shaped”.

As parents it’s good to have an alternative to suggest. “Look for a solution, not a problem,” says McLaughlin. Reassure the child that these are just a set of exam results; they don’t define them and there are always options.

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