“I’m so stressed!!”
This is a comment I hear many students make, particularly when coming into an exam or an assessment period. Something I find helpful in my sessions with students is to remind them that stress is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, stress is a normal reaction that we all feel as human beings towards situations that are challenging. Not enough stress in life can result in boredom, apathy, low mood and ultimately a lack of working to one’s potential. However, too much stress also costs our performance by creating distress, and can result in fatigue, physical ill-health and anxiety. Our aim at SCEGGS is to facilitate students to experience an optimal amount of stress. This is when students are pushed out of their comfort zone and rise to that challenge. Optimal stress can have a range of benefits including an increase in energy and focus, a sense of pride and can lead people to accomplish things they never thought they could. This idea is backed by research that suggests short term moderate stress for a few hours, like an exam or speech, primes the brain for alertness resulting in better learning and memory (Jaret, 2015).
So how can you as parents make stress more beneficial for your daughters?
Stay calm and connected
It's normal to feel stress coming up to exams, big assessment periods or waiting for results. But, stress as an emotion can be catching. You may have noticed this in your own household. If one person is stressed this feeling may go through the entire household and before you know it everyone’s heart is racing!
Regular communication during a shared activity like going for a walk or driving in the car or doing something they like to do can be helpful. Get a good understanding of your daughter’s study routines and plans so that you can help them balance out schoolwork with time for fun, family and friends in an age appropriate way. Communicate regularly with your daughter in a calm, non-judgmental, non-blaming way, as this will encourage them to speak honestly with you about how they are feeling. And if you do notice yourself, or your daughter, beginning to become distressed, one of the most effective things to do is to take a few deep breaths and stay calm. This breaks the cycle and helps contain and regulate emotions.
Encourage helpful thinking
It’s important for us all to help your daughters keep things in perspective. To remind them that you and their teachers are here to support them. Tell them that while there their exams or assignments are important, their value as human beings and the value of their education is not reflected simply in a mark. Thinking inflexibly about situations or jumping to the worst possible scenario is not going to be helpful in keeping them at the optimal level of stress, which is where they learn and perform best. We need to help them to think in a balanced way, recognising that they will need to prioritise tasks and develop the resilience to deal with minor setbacks and disappointments.
In order to do this, you can ask things like:
- Is that a helpful way of thinking about that situation?
- What is a more helpful way of thinking about it?
- Is that the only possible explanation?
- What are some other ways of thinking about this situation?
It is so important that you try to ask these questions rather than react to your child’s worry in the moment and try to fix things for them.
Nurture a healthy lifestyle
Often when I first meet students, I ask about their sleep, diet and level of exercise. I talk about this being the foundation of our emotional house. If our foundations are rocky, our emotions too will be more susceptible to extremes and more likely to be unstable.
Encourage your daughter to not forget the simple things like sleeping. According to the Student Wellbeing survey we conducted last year over half of our High school students (60%) report waking up feeling quite exhausted or exhausted. According to experts’ school aged children 6-13 years old require 9-11 hours of sleep per night and young people aged 14-17 need 8-10 hours of sleep (Sleep Connection, 2019).
Remind your daughter to go to sleep at a regular time and remove phones before bed. Good sleepers usually take 30 minutes to fall asleep at night and may wake a few times throughout the night. It is unrealistic for your daughter to expect that she will fall asleep straight away. Encourage your daughter to engage in a non-screen activity in bed 30 minutes to 1 hour before sleep time to help your daughter unwind and prepare for sleep. As a household you may consider turning off main lights and using just lamps 1-2 hours before bedtime. Low lighting helps the release of melatonin which encourages human bodies to sleep.
Keep a watchful eye
The most commons signs of too much stress is when you see changes in your daughter's emotions (for example agitation, anxiousness or sadness), behaviour (this may include withdrawal from activities they normally enjoy or too much socialising and not enough studying), physicality (such as headaches, or a gain or reduction in appetite or weight) and cognitions (difficulties with memory, inability to focus and negative perspective). It’s important to point out that most young people leading up to an exam period or an assignment period are going to show signs of stress and this is perfectly normal. But if changes are intense, frequent, persist for more than two weeks and are not easily explained or alleviated by an external stressor such as an exam period there may be something more going on.
If you do notice changes in your daughter that you find concerning, telling your daughter what changes you have noticed in their behaviour, without nagging or blaming, and asking them whether they have noticed changes too, can be helpful. You can also contact their Year Co-ordinator, Form Teacher, Director of Pastoral Care, one of the School Counsellors or speak to your GP. I have also included a few apps that you, and your daughter, might find helpful in managing stress at the end of this article.
Jaret, P. 2015, The Surprising Benefits of Stress Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley, viewed 4 Sept 2019, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_surprising_benefits_of_stress
The Sleep Connection, Sleep for Children and Teenagers: Amount of Sleep Required, viewed 4 Sept 2019, https://thesleepconnection.com.au/sleep-for-children-teenagers/#2amount
Apps to help manage stress
- Reachout Breathe
- Reachout worry time
- Smiling Mind
- Raising Children’s Network
- Reach Out
Dr Melissa Saxton