Parents - let your children 'chill' at this testing time


It's day one, and parents, like students, should learn to relax about the Leaving. It's only an exam, not a matter of life and death, writes Kathryn Holmquist

I was having dinner with a group of friends, all parents, when the conversation turned to the Leaving Cert. "Parents completely lose perspective," somebody said.

"I can't believe the way some parents get so uptight about it. There's more to life than the Leaving Cert," somebody else chimed in.

"It's only an exam. It doesn't determine the rest of your life," said another.

The conversation was lively, until one parent said: "I used to feel the way you do. This year my son is doing the Leaving. You don't know what it's like until you're going through it." The room grew quiet.

For those of you who are going through it this year, I won't patronise you by saying that the Leaving Cert isn't significant. Of course it is.

"It's very important that parents don't go stupid about things," says Arthur Godsil, headmaster of St Andrew's College, who had to set up 10 different testing centres two years ago for students who succumbed to accidents, injuries and anxiety, many of them stress-related.

Godsil believes that what students really need is parents who are physically present and emotionally involved, letting their child take the lead and never being pushy. Urging their children to study is the last thing parents should do. "Young people doing the Leaving need their parents just being around without causing any difficulty, so that the child feels supported. It's not rocket science," he says.

When his own daughter was going through the Leaving, he brought her up to the top of a mountain on three different occasions, "just to sit on a rock and shoot the breeze".

Mary Devally, a sixth-year teacher at St Andrew's who runs relaxation sessions for students, says: "Of course the exams are important, but they don't determine who you are as a person. They are not a matter of life and death."

Some parents unintentionally give their children "mixed signals" about the exam, she observes. Parents may say, "relax, darling . . . don't study too hard . . . go to bed early . . . no reason to worry" - when what they are really feeling is, "who you are will be completely defined by the results of this exam". Teenagers unerringly pick up this subtext of anxiety, because children intuitively sense their parent's true feelings. "I've heard so many parents say, 'we were not putting any pressure on them', yet children know how bitterly disappointed the parent will be if they don't get into law or medicine or whatever. These messages get picked up from the ether. Few parents will actually say, 'you must get into medicine or we will be angry'," Devally says.

Before trying to help their children with their feelings, parents should set aside time for self-reflection about how they themselves feel about the Leaving Cert, advises John Sharry, psychologist and author of Bringing Up Responsible Teenagers (Veritas, €7.50). Parents need to ask themselves, "Do I know my child well enough? Do I know what my child is capable of? And do I know myself well enough to see if I am pressuring my child?"

The two unhelpful approaches parents can take are to put pressure on their children, or to be completely uninvolved. "Minimising the exams and saying, 'it's only the Leaving Cert' is not the best message because for the teenagers the exam is the biggest thing in their lives. They need to know that you are with them on it and that you are there to offer support - a shoulder to cry on," he says.

Parents who take a healthy interest in their children's educational progress will already know their child's strengths and weaknesses and will have a realistic idea of what their children can achieve. They'll be able to coach their children through the process of studying and exams, by standing on the sidelines and cheering them on. "Children want parents to have high hopes for them. They need their parents looking for the best they can achieve, but being realistic too. You can express the belief that you want your child to do well without pressuring your child," he says.

When teenagers feel stressed, they need their parents to help them identify what the sources of stress are, advises Devally. The Leaving Cert, parents may be surprised to learn, may not actually be what is stressing the child. "For some teenagers, social life is very stressful. Being surgically attached to a mobile phone is a constant source of stress, with frantic phone calls leading up to a party at the weekend, and text messages about who will be there and who will not and then the rows around that. It can be quite an aggressive age," she observes.

Helping your child to "chill" doesn't mean making him or her cut back on social life, however. Adolescents need to be constantly busy; they relax differently from adults and being grounded at home could be counterproductive, Devally advises. When parents see their Leaving Cert-bound children lying stretched across a six-foot sofa watching TV all evening, they may feel tempted to say "hit the books". Actually, watching TV and listening to music are the best ways to relax for many teenagers, so be careful what you say, she advises.

If your child has difficulty sleeping or seems anxious, make sure that you remain accessible and open to talk. "Keep an eagle eye on the children who are anxious and don't be afraid to seek psychological help," says Devally.