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Fight, flight or freeze – how to spot signs of exam stress in children

Exam stress can be overwhelming for your child but there are ways you can help – here’s how to tackle the fight, flight or freeze response to stress

exam stress in children
How to spot the signs of exam stress in children

Thinking back to your school days, you might remember the friendships, your crushes and the games you played at break time. Hopefully you won’t remember feeling stressed, especially during exam time.

But it’s this stress that is causing great concern for young people today, especially as rates of mental health issues are on the rise. For thousands of children the challenge of SATs, GCSEs, AS and A-Levels during secondary (and even primary) education is overwhelming. And it’s causing record numbers to seek help and advice from support networks such as Childline.

The children’s charity said it recorded a stark rise in calls from children looking for counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17, which had risen by 11% over two years. And one in five of those calls were received during May, which falls just before final exam season. Pupils were feeling unprepared and struggling to cope with excessive workloads and difficult subjects.

As a parent it’s not always easy to spot the warning signs that your child is suffering with exam nerves. But catching the build-up of stress early means you can help and and support your child as they navigate the exam timetable.

Read more: How can heuristic play benefit children 

What to look out for

All young people facing exams will feel some degree of stress as a result. Every child will react differently and what works for one won’t always work for another.

When stress hits it triggers that primal part of the brain that deals with survival and we handle this with either a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response, says business mentor and coach Clare Josa, who runs the BeatTheExamStress.com blog.

She says that the same can be applied to children during exams. 

Fight

“If your child is picking fights…they are irritable… and antsy; if they are pushing your buttons harder than ever, it could be that they are struggling with exam stress,” she says. “They don’t want to lash out at the teachers, there’s no point lashing out at their text books and revision guides, so they lash out where they feel safe – at home.

“They need a bit of unconditional love, they need to learn how to handle that exam stress and they need to start having a discussion with you about this in a time when they are calm.”

Josa says that it’s important to keep your cool when your child is “kicking off’”and refusing to do their revision. Breathing in and out before responding to your child’s outburst will help. “With an exam-stressed child, it gives them the space to feel heard,” she adds. “It helps them to feel safe. You are being present, instead of launching the attack they are fearing.”

The most important thing to remember with a child in ‘fight’ mode is that it isn’t about you, they are simply trying to cope with emotions they may not have experienced before.

Flight

The flight response is when your child is not doing any revision or showing any regard for their exams. No matter what you try, they are not interested and the more you try and get them to study, the less likely they are to do it. Children in flight mode will often lie to you about when they are revising too.

“They are running from their exams,” says Josa. “You’ve got to help them by listening. You’ve got to find ways to open up that dialogue, asking them open ended questions that have no judgement, such as: ‘tell me what’s going on with your exams and revision’ or ‘I notice that revision isn’t your favourite thing and I’d love to understand what’s going on for you with this’. Start trying to get a feel of the inner-dialogue their running about their exams.

“When your child is hiding from their exam revision, when they are pretending it’s not important and they don’t care, the chances are there is some fear of failure running,” adds Josa, “and it’s our job as parents, teachers and tutors to help them to process that in a healthier way. Maybe you could help them to create a revision plan that does work for them or help them to create ideas for incentives so that an hour of revision a certain number of times a day gets them a certain reward. The main thing is not to be judging them and not to try and force them.”

Read more: Dealing with and finding a way through Empty Nest Syndrome

Freeze

Freeze mode is normally categorised by noticing a significant shift in your child’s behaviour and they just go quiet and stop interacting as they usually do.

“As a parent, teacher or tutor, you’ll know when something has changed,” says Josa. “They’ve stopped communicating and that normal spark that they have starts to disappear.

“The last thing that’s going to happen if your child has gone into freeze and shut down is that they are going to spontaneously come out of it. It could last for the whole of the exams. Start listening and ask questions that will help you connect with what their inner story is. It’s really important to help them articulate those inner discussions that are causing them to shut down from stress.”

What else can you look out for?

The NHS says children and young people experiencing stress may have the following symptoms. 

  • worry a lot
  • feel tense
  • get lots of headaches and stomach pains
  • not sleep well
  • be irritable
  • either lose interest in food or eat more than usual
  • They might also seem negative and low in mood and not enjoy activities they previously did

It is important to encourage your child to open up and talk to you, a teacher or school staff member they feel is supportive. Make time to talk to your child and spend time with them one on one. Sometimes this can be the perfect opportunity for them to open up about their fears. And, sometimes all they need is a little reassurance from you that things will work out ok. 

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