Leaving Certificate: a parent’s guide to coping with the stress

Parents are just bystanders which brings its own stress in the countdown to June 7th

 

I’ve read about them, listened to them, written about them and, to be honest, had the odd smirk about them. Now I am one – a Leaving Cert mum.

 To be even thinking like that is a sure sign of being caught up in the hype. It’s the first time too, which makes it a bigger deal. From giving birth onwards, you do learn that every parenting challenge is usually a little easier on repetition.

 No matter how much you swore you would never be one of “those parents” who radiate so much nervous tension you’d think they were going into the exam hall themselves, it’s hard not to let flutters of concern take flight.

 We know we are mere bystanders as our offspring prepare for this monumental test of information recall and hand-writing speed. It’s all about them, not us. But the powerlessness of being on the sidelines can add to the stress – ask any football manager. Not that I would fancy getting my biro out to attempt English paper one at 9.30am on Wednesday June 7th . . .

 However, a mother’s guilt doesn’t stop when a child reaches 18. So it’s no surprise, as May hurtles into June, we do some revision of our own.

 Here are seven things I’ve learned so far:

Emotions creep up on you

There’s no point in over-investing at the time of the mocks, sure isn’t there months to go before the real thing? Meeting the teachers after that set of results is reassuring, or not, depending on the child, the subject – and the teacher.

 When the first hurdle of orals and practicals is crossed there’s still a whole summer term to go. Except that summer term is very, very short. And before the Leaving Cert, there’s the other significant leaving – of school.

 By the time the school has sent out notes about arrangements for the last day and farewell evening, the “last evers” are being chalked up –the last sports day, the last double period of Irish on a Monday morning, the last time a school shirt needs ironing. Then the clock is ticking as loudly in the parents’ as the students’ ears.

  Suddenly you’re back to that induction evening before the start of first year, when the “Class of 2017” was writ large on the screen and it seemed such a long time away. Worse, you’re transported back to your own final school days, with no idea of what you wanted “to be” and trying to imagine life without classrooms and timetables, when it was all you had ever known.

 I can recall Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin, advising last year that no matter how good parents think they are at maintaining boundaries and keeping anxiety in check, when they are caught up in the pre-exam chatter among peers and in the media, it’s impossible to stay detached.

Not that you wouldn’t want to empathise, but it’s a balance between not letting your own anxiety exacerbate theirs and appearing nonchalant, which might be taken as you didn’t care enough.

Conversations about “when I was doing the Leaving Cert . . .” are irrelevant

Don’t even think about going there – because that really is such a long time ago. How could you expect any teenager to take an era before mobile phones seriously?

The futility of unhinged “if onlys . . .” 

There are lots of junctions in parenting where the old joke comes to mind about a Kerryman being asked for directions and responding with: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here . . .”

 The more advice you listen to, the more it seems you are being told that if you had done something different when they were younger an issue might have been avoided. By the time they reach 18, the “nurture” part of the “nature and nurture” conundrum has almost run its course. No point now in ruminating at 3am about:

  If only . . . I had persevered with trying to persuade him to develop a taste for fish, would his brain be reaping the benefits now?

 If only . . . I had devised “rules of use” before I handed over that first mobile phone, would one not be embedded in his palm now?

 If only . . . I had been stricter about a studying routine in fifth year, would it have helped?

It’s too late to alter your parenting style

Even if you could, it’s not advisable. Teenagers start getting really worried if parents start changing habits of a lifetime. But that doesn’t stop occasional doubts about the wisdom of favouring a prudently hands-off approach, appealing to their sense of reason rather than laying down the law.

It’s not the time to denounce our education system

Perhaps we should have emigrated to Finland when the children were born but, to use that phrase beloved of politicians, “we are where we are”.

 There is no point in railing against the exam game they are all being forced to play, except to reassure them that the result will not define them. And that there really is myriad post-Leaving options out there, unlike “in our day”.

Sport is a boost not a bind

When training and matches seem to take up a lot of time and energy during sixth year, it’s important to remember scientific research shows a positive link between sport participation and academic achievement.

 Specific to the matter in hand, the results of a UCC study headed by John Bradley, of 402 boys graduating from secondary school during 2008-2011, which was published in the US Journal of School Health, reported that participation in sports during the last two years of school “conferred a 25.4-point benefit to the final Leaving Certificate score”. That’s the same as the bonus for doing honours maths!

Grinds providers know how to play you

We were sucked into the world of group grinds for a couple of subjects relatively late on. But once the organisers have your contact details, be prepared for the constant pushing of extra revision sessions, indispensable study notes, stress-relieving seminars and last-minute crash courses . . . An invaluable leg up for those who can find the money to pay or taking advantage of nervous students and their families? Who can really tell?

With one week to go, what now?

With a week to go to the start of the State exams, what’s the advice of experienced hands for rookie Leaving Cert parents?

Keep calm as the clock ticks down.

The worst part is the anticipation, it’s not so bad when the exams actually start, says actor and playwright Rose Henderson, a mother of four who has seen two through the Leaving Certificate.

 “The build-up is dreadful. I actually turned off all news – I didn’t want them to know how many thousand students were starting the Leaving Cert tomorrow . . . If they wanted to read anything in The Irish Times they were welcome, but I wasn’t leaving it out for them.

“I think it’s all too late at that point – they have done what they’ve done.” She encouraged 10-minute breaks from study, for something like a game of cards, table tennis or playing the piano, “just to shift the focus of their brain”.

Stock the fridge

Everybody seems unanimous on this one. It’s definitely a time for comfort food, which also needs to be as nutritious as possible.

 “My tack was that ‘I am here to feed you’ – there was loads of home-made stuff,” says Henderson.

 Dearbhla Kelly, guidance counsellor and author of Career Coach, stresses the importance of students staying well hydrated at all times. “You can improve your performance by 10 per cent, according to the British Psychological Society.”

Keep tuned in

“The biggest single bit of advice I give is to stay attuned to your young person’s needs and keep your routine as normal as possible,” says Paul Gilligan, chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services in Dublin and author of Raising Emotionally Healthy Children. “Be conscious of the need for your child to have support – but provide that support in the way that they seek it.”

Don’t fuss

Avoid the inclination to be “overly supportive”, he suggests. It might be too late now, but he doesn’t recommend taking two weeks off if the teenager’s response is: “Why? You are always working and I am happy with that.”

 Of course once the exams have started it is important to check in, “How did it go?” etc, but let the child respond in their own manner and take the conversation from there.

 It’s a “very stressful time for parents and the biggest stress is to be able to constrain their stress and their love for their child, expressing that in a way that is constructive”, Gilligan says.

 “The resilience of your own child will come through and they will seek the support they need. If they are having an implosion of anxiety, then you need to help them manage that, but most kids won’t.”

Take a step back and be tolerant

It is their Leaving Cert and parents have to remember that, says Betty McLaughlin, immediate past president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. If they see their parents getting anxious it’s going to make them more anxious.

“They are depending on you to calm the storm. They are very sensitive and you have to be doubly sensitive as a parent in order to support them.

 “There are going to be ups and downs and they will be a little bit ratty and agitated. Be prepared for that – it is all part of the stress.”

Don’t stress about their stress

“Stress is a good thing – it is a motivator and it’s normal,” says McLaughlin. “I would be consoling students to say it’s okay to be stressed, it’s normal, and it’s okay if you are not stressed either. There is no right or wrong.”

Encourage positive thoughts

If a teenager is catastrophising going into the exams, “I am going to fail, this is going to be a disaster”, the mind gets hijacked by that strong emotion and fear, cutting off access to memory and logic, says Kelly.

So it’s important to help them reduce their anxiety, encouraging them to tell themselves that they can do it, and to believe that all their thoughts will flow when they open that paper.

 If people can feel safe and secure, the brain is going to work well, she points out. “We are wired like cavemen – we don’t know the difference between an exam and a tiger; we go into that flight or freeze mode.”

Avoid postmortems

 It’s really important to encourage them not to ruminate but to move on for the next exam, says McLaughlin. She has seen students become immobilised when they start dissecting what went wrong, where and why, in a particular paper.

 “One of the greatest crosses a parent has to bear is the anxiety going into the exam and then the non-feedback at the end of the exam,” says Gilligan.

 The student has usually resolved his or her anxiety through doing the exam but “the child hasn’t the energy or the psychological capacity to explain to somebody how it went”, he explains.

 “So it might be something like ‘grand’ or it might be something like ‘terrible’, and you have to suck it up and say that is the best I am going to get here and also help the child to move on.”

He recommends two messages to get across if a student is dwelling on a paper that’s behind them: one, it’s unlikely to be as bad as you think and two, it doesn’t really matter at this stage, you have got to move on.

 “Encourage your son or daughter to park it but that can be a real challenge for parents because they themselves get stuck into it: ‘What exactly was so terrible about it?’; ‘Did you do two questions or three questions?’ etc. The key principle is not to make judgments because we haven’t a clue.”

Prepare for post-traumatic stress

During the almost eight weeks from the end of the exams to expected results day of August 16th, there is a recognised process, which is similar to a post-traumatic reaction, says Gilligan.

 It starts with denial that the results are yet to come because it’s all rejoicing at the end of the exams and let’s move on. Then there’s the depression, the “I think I did awful”, followed by anger at having to wait so long for the results.

 “Parents need to help support their children through that and make sure they don’t get stuck in those phases.” At the same time, parents need to control their own anxieties.

  “They see their child responding and they are hanging on to those responses.” In reality nothing is changing from week one to week seven “but your child is going through a psychological resolution and, by the time they get to the results, they are in a healthier state to be able to deal with the outcome”.

 Parallel to this is helping them to resolve the loss of secondary school. Parents should, he suggests, take a constructive view of the “dreaded post-Leaving Certificate holiday” as the youngsters’ ritual of saying goodbye and moving on.

Remember it’s not the end of the world

“Of course it’s important,” acknowledges Gilligan, “but there are so many different roads a child can take to get what they want out of life. The Leaving Certificate results do not determine that.”

 McLaughlin looks at her daughters, now in their 20s, and wonders why she ever worried.

 “There are options for everyone. Why did any of us worry about those things – as long as they have their health? But it’s all relative at the time. It’s something as a parent you have to do through.”

 Good luck.

 swayman@irishtimes.com

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