How to teach your teen to self care AND fuel their brain during exam time
Reduce stress and Increase focus and productivity
As a parent to a teenager about to take their GCSE exams, I’m experiencing first-hand the pressure that’s put on teens as exam season fast approaches. And the combination of decreasing attention spans and high stress levels are by no means in our teens’ favour. Social media, video games and TV have all left our attention spans at an all-time low and simply trying to focus is a bigger challenge than ever for this generation of teens.
So what can we do to help the brains of our kids and create the best environment - inside and outside - for them to take on the coming weeks with confidence. We hear a lot of talk about feeding our children’s brains and, while that’s an important factor, we also need to remember that stress levels have a huge impact on their ability to focus.
As parents, helping our kids succeed isn’t just about creating revision schedules or making sure they’re staying on top of homework. Instead, we can create a more holistic environment which gives them the tools to unwind which in turn will improve concentration and their mental wellbeing.
The impact of exam stress
Stress is a natural response to challenging situations but when it comes to academic success, it’s ultimately counterproductive and can even be damaging in the long run.
"The stress response impairs our ability to think and function. Stress can result in poor concentration and memory because our minds are too worked up to focus. Trying to study when stressed is often unproductive, distracting, and can even provoke more stress." Brightspotuk
The stress of studying can last far beyond the exam period and you don’t have to spend long on Google to find research that would worry any parent. Did you know that 50% of people who have mental health problems throughout their life will have experienced symptoms by the time they’re 14. For most of these people, their issues will be rooted in stress.
And teachers are seeing it too. Research suggests that high-stakes exams like GCSEs and A-levels can have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of teenagers. 82% of teachers say test and exams have the biggest impact on the mental health of their students and studies have found that exam pressure can lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as physical symptoms like headaches and stomach pains.
Self-care for students
In 2019, my son’s school invited Nadia and I to lead a self-care workshop for Year 11s who were in the run up to their GCSEs. The Head of Year 11 could see how high stress levels were becoming among this year group and was worried about how it was affecting their mental health, sleep, physical hygiene and nutrition.
I was so impressed that the school wanted to offer this kind of support to teens - although my son was mortified at the thought of us coming in and I was under strict instructions not to embarrass him!
In this first workshop with the students, we showed them techniques on how to relieve stress and helped them understand the importance of self-care. We loved being able to help teens in this way and the feedback was incredible. So much so that we were asked to offer the workshop again the following year; this time spread out across several weeks and involving parents too. Because if as parents we’re not taking care of ourselves, then how can we expect our teens to!
Get started now
As my eldest son is about to sit his exams, I’ve been able to take the things I’ve learned from working with other teenagers to help him through this super stressful time of his life.
The first thing is starting early. We can’t expect teens to overhaul their lifestyle overnight so you want to start building healthy changes into their routine so by the time the deadline hits, they’re already in a good space to handle it. By the time exams arrive it’s too late.
That’s why I want to talk about this now. With five weeks until crunch time, now is the time to start introducing new ways of eating, sleeping, unwinding, and restoring so that our teens are in the best place emotionally, mentally and physically for their exams.
These are the things I’m doing with my son to help him through this super stressful time of his life.
As a family, we’ve invested in tutors to support our teen through his GCSE in certain core subjects, but you can have all the tutoring in the world, it won’t make a difference if you can't concentrate. Diet is a great place to start to help improve concentration.
I like to give my son Focused before school, and when he gets back before he studies or has a tutor. His Tutor notices the difference in his attention and most importantly he does too. He says he can focus for longer and is taking in more information.
A few other things I like to work into his day are:
High protein and low sugar breakfasts.
A snack for school so he doesn’t go a whole day without eating.
A bottle of water with a few mint leaves thrown in.
Something to eat when he gets home so he has the energy to revise.
A healthy dinner in the evening.
Foods that fuel your brain:
- Pumpkin seeds
- Omega 3,
- Leafy greens
- Low sugar
- Avoid processed foods
Supplements to improve concentration: Lions mane, Cordyceps, gotu kola, iron, zinc, ginseng. This is why we created I AM FOCUSED as fuel for the brain.
I try to keep the house calm and tidy. This helps keep his mind calm and helps him to be organised. I encourage him to keep his room like a quiet sanctuary where he can go to concentrate.
We have a diffuser and I like to use lemon oil or peppermint oil when it's study time and oils like lavender to unwind.
I am still giving him freedom, with clear boundaries on what time he has to be home and in bed. This weekend he wanted to stay the night at a friend’s after a party and it was a firm ‘no’ from me. I need him to get as much rest as possible. Staying at a mate’s house was not on the cards but a night out was fine.
We are always in bed by 10pm and asleep by 10.30pm. Getting my kids into healthy sleep patterns has been a priority for my husband and I. If the find unwinding and getting to sleep difficult, try relaxing them with I AM RESTED
I encourage him to exercise and go for a walk. Being physical will get the stress out of their body and exercise releases serotonin which boosts happiness.
Our mood can affect everyone around us so it is imperative that no matter how much work and personal things are bothering me, I leave them at the front door and keep a calm and balanced vibe in the house (just in the weeks building up to exam time).
Make sure that they are getting enough time outside to really relax and let go. We underestimate the benefits and stress relieving qualities that a walk in nature can bring.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to play some really loud music - and just let them move their body.
I have kept to the bath in the evening ritual with my kids and this is Jonah's favourite thing to do to unwind. Having a bath is his sacred time. He lights his candles and soaks in the tub for about half an hour - great for him, slightly annoying for us! Starting the day with a quick shower is also great, especially if they can add five seconds of cold water at the end. Cold water exposure can improve your mood, lessen anxiety and increase resilience.
Teach - your teen simple meditation techniques so that they can unwind - in the evenings and learn breathing techniques that they can use when they are in the exam. Jonah signed up to the Headspace app and he does guided meditations when he feels he needs them. He’s also researched different types of coloured noises, - similar to white noise but with different frequencies. He uses brown noise for studying and pink noise to help with sleep, memory and stress.
We all want our kids to do well. Most of them want to do well, too. But not everyone learns and demonstrates their talents through exams. It’s an archaic system which I personally don’t agree with. My son struggles with maths and numbers and excels in history, drama, English and Spanish but he won’t get into the school he wants without a good maths result.
I make sure he knows that we have his back and support him the best we can. If there is something that I feel the school is missing, I will always advocate for him.
It won’t always be perfect - and that’s okay
I know this may come across like we are the little perfect family. But we are not!
Doors slam, there’s cursing, moaning and crying - all on a regular basis.
We can only do our best. I definitely don’t get it right all the time, but I hope there are a few ideas in this post that will support you. Some of them may be obvious and some may be new.
I want to make sure my kids know there are techniques in place for stressful times and there are tools they can learn to self-regulate and take care of themselves when they step out into - a world full of deadlines, financial stress, family difficulties and all the other things that come with being a human. I want them to be able to notice when their friends are suffering with stress and be there to support them.
Self-regulation and self-care is a learnt behaviour.
Not only is it helpful for the kids, as they go through their exams with raging hormones and all that comes with being a teenager, but it’s also helpful as they navigate their way through their journey in life.
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