There’s tension in the air as the start date hurtles forward with inexorable force. You can see it in the hunched shoulders, creased foreheads, and faces set granite-hard with crippling anxiety.
Yes, exam season is almost upon us. But I’m not talking about the young people who will actually be sitting A-levels and GCSEs this summer – I’m describing their parents, like me, currently in a state of suspended agitation as we attempt to cheerlead our teenagers through to the finish line.
As a mother of four, you’d think I’d be used to the exam build-up by now. Our older two, Sam, 23 and Max, 20, have long since been through GSCEs and A-levels – and are now in the throes of university exams (though, thankfully for my stress levels, away from home).
But it never gets any easier: currently their younger brother Aaron, 17, is grafting for the A-levels he hopes will secure him a place to study history at university, while I’m facing the profound challenge of trying to work out how to be encouraging, rather than annoying, and when to leave well alone.
If this is your first time, exam parenting, then here are five things to expect… and how to make sure you (and your teen) get through them.
1. Feeling like you’re about to have a nervous breakdown every time your child goes out.
The other day, Aaron announced he was going to a party. A party?? What about getting enough sleep? Waking up late? Missing critical hours of study? Actually it was a Saturday night and he was home by 12.30am. But I still spent the evening whimpering under the duvet, fretting that he’d just thrown his future away.
Remember extracurricular activities are actually good for them, says Neil Shah, of the Stress Management Society. “Human brains can only maintain concentration for 90 minutes at one time.” They need regular breaks and scheduled time to do the things they enjoy. And you need to tune into when your children work best – be it early in the morning or late at night – so you can avoid rows about not getting down to work, 24/7.
2. Recurring dreams – or rather nightmares – about failing to prepare for an exam.
When our son, Sam was doing his Biology A-level I was haunted by my old biology teacher, Mrs Swarmi, reproaching me for not understanding the anatomy of a sheep’s eye. Terrifying.
You can’t do the work for them, but instead of panicking as to whether they’re getting through it on their own, offer to help draw up a balanced and realistic revision schedule. Make the learning and memorising process part of the household, suggests Carrie Starbuck, managing director of Learning Performance. “Perhaps provide a noticeboard, or give them an entire wall, for their notes, posters or timetables.” (Our fridge has previously tracked the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell.)
3. Getting nervous every time you hear music upstairs.
I could never revise with any background noise. Our middle son, Max soundtracked his A-level studies with a bizarre mix of classical, traditional Jewish and pop. All I could hear was the sound of my thudding heart.
Leave them to it,
but ask them, nicely, to pack up the electronics at least an hour before going to bed. A study by UCL found teenagers who use websites such as Facebook within 30 minutes of bedtime can damage grades, as it may over-stimulate the brain, making it difficult to sleep afterwards. To avoid a showdown, offer to run your teen a bath, or make them a hot chocolate to encourage a screen-free wind-down.
4. Going into parenting overdrive. Did you eat? Did you sleep? Do you need yet more pens?
It’s good for both parents and teens to get out and do some head-clearing exercise. According to a study published in the Journal of Paediatrics, teenagers who are physically fit do better in exams. And research published in the New Scientist last year showed that students who took time out from revision by playing sport, helped consolidate their memories by using a different part of the brain.
Take them with you to the gym or ask them to join you when you walk the dog, then make them a brain-food breakfast: two scrambled or poached eggs on toasted rye bread, to provide protein, slow-releasing carbohydrates, zinc, B vitamins and healthy fats.
5. Being freaked out by other parents – especially those who bring in the heavy artillery of private tutors.
Given you can’t help asking other parents how much work their children seem to be doing – even though this way, madness lies – don’t expect to have a normal adult conversation until at least July.
If all else fails, bribe your teen – we tried it with ours, offering money per A* pass at GCSE. Hopelessly politically incorrect, and disputed by all the experts, but it worked. And at least you both feel you have something to aim for.