Practical strategies for managing exam stress

In their final years of school, your teen might be struggling to manage the intense pressure that comes with exams, especially if they feel like their whole future depends on their results. 

In one way, signs of stress can be positive, as they show that your teen cares about the outcome of their exams. But constant, unmanaged stress can take its toll on your teen’s mental and physical health, and lead to burnout, all of which can impact their performance and wellbeing.

It’s really normal for your teen to feel stressed during this time, but there are lots of things you can do to support them. Check out these practical strategies for managing exam stress with your teen. 

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In the lead-up to exams

In the weeks or months leading up to the exam period, your teen might be feeling pretty overwhelmed about everything they need to do. It can be a stressful time for you, too. So, here’s how you can work together to make things less daunting.

Work on a study plan together

Creating a study plan early on will help your teen feel organised and reassured that they’re giving themselves enough time to cover all their study materials. Even if they haven’t managed to get started early, a structured approach that clearly lays out what and when they need to study can help make the process feel a lot more achievable. 

Check out our guide to creating a study schedule with your teen. We break down the practical steps you can take to build a plan that works for them, along with handy templates to use.

Chat about expectations and goals

Does your teen have a specific result they’re hoping for? You might have your own expectations for your teen, but it’s a good idea to ask them what theirs are, too, just so that you’re both aligned.

Together, you could look through the grades your teen has received so far throughout the year – not in order to judge their previous marks, but to think about what’s realistically achievable in their final exams. It’ll give you both a clearer idea of the work your teen needs to put in to get there. An ATAR calculator might be helpful for estimating their marks.

Identify stressors, coping methods and supports

Certain things might make your teen feel extra stressed while studying, like hearing about how older relatives did in their exams, comparing their progress with that of their friends, or staying up late to study. These stressors might not always be preventable, but it’ll help to be prepared with some coping methods if ever they come up.

Chat to your teen about what relaxation techniques or self-care they could practise and who they could talk to for support.This might be a friend or another family member, or if they’re really struggling they could chat to a teacher, a school counsellor or an anonymous counselling service like Kids Helpline.

Help them set up a study space

Find a space at home where they can be away from everyone else, ideally with a door they can close and natural lighting for better concentration. Set it up together so that the space is clear of clutter, and has everything they need to study and none of the things that could sidetrack them. You could even hang up a vision board for extra motivation.

While they’re studying, ask other members of your household to respect your teen’s space and privacy, so they can remain focused. If you don’t have a quiet space at home, work with your teen to figure out a solution. Maybe they can wear headphones and listen to white noise or soothing music while they study, or they might prefer to study somewhere outside the home, such as at the library. 

During exams

This might feel like it’s your teen’s last chance to try and cram in as much study as possible. But making sure they keep taking care of themselves is just as important for handling exam stress and success.

Make sure they’re eating well

Like the rest of the body, the brain needs a balanced diet to be at its best. The right foods can help your teen go into their exams feeling energised, with a clear mind, good memory and focus. Some particular food groups to focus on include protein, fruits and vegetables for antioxidants, and Omega-3s. Read this article for a more detailed list of exam-friendly foods.

New research has found that eating a healthy breakfast is particularly helpful for boosting motivation. If you and your teen tend to rush in the mornings, you could prep the meal, or lay out everything you need to make a quick breakfast, the night before.

Encourage quality sleep, exercise and movement

Getting enough sleep is also important for thinking clearly during exam time. Your teen may be tempted to stay up late to study the night before an exam, but young people need 8–10 hours of sleep for proper brain function

If they’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, check out these practical strategies for improving your teen’s sleep. You could also show them this video with some tips from a therapist on how to improve sleep or our handy guide for young people on how to get a good night’s sleep.

Regular exercise can help with sleep quality, as well as relieve tension and stress. But when your teen is consumed by thoughts of exams, it can be hard for them to find the drive. Not all exercise has to be a hardcore workout, though, and all movement has benefits. Here are some ideas you can share with them about how to exercise when you’re not motivated and ways to exercise that don’t feel like exercise.

Encourage time for fun, socialising and self-care

Taking breaks from study to have some fun will help sustain your teen emotionally during their exams. Hanging out with friends and family, or doing an activity they enjoy as a form of self-care, will boost your teen’s mood and help them feel refreshed and energised.

It can also serve as a good distraction from their worries and give them the opportunity to check in with their mates and be there for each other.

After exams

It’ll be a relief when exams are over, but waiting for and receiving results can also be a source of anxiety for teens. Here’s what you can do to lighten the pressure.

Celebrate effort, not just outcomes

Don’t wait until your teen gets their results before celebrating! Finishing exams is an achievement in itself. Regardless of whether or not they got their desired results, they will have worked hard and learnt new things along the way. 

You could plan a celebration in advance, while your teen is still doing their exams, so they have something to look forward to. It doesn’t need to be a huge party; it could be a small dinner with their favourite people, or a trip to the cinema to see a movie they’ve been excited to see.

Provide reassurance and perspective

Remind your teen that it’s not the end of the world if they don’t get the score they wanted. They’ve probably heard it all before, but hearing it from you can be really reassuring.

It’s okay to feel disappointed, especially if they had their heart set on a specific university course, but in the grand scheme of life their score won’t matter. Life keeps going and there will be more opportunities for different kinds of achievements later on. It can be daunting to think about what comes next, so if you’re looking for practical tips, check out this article on what to do if your teen is stressed about the future.

Help them to set new goals and to explore future pathways

There are plenty of pathways your teen could pursue after leaving school. Regardless of whether or not they achieved what they wanted in their final exams, creating new goals will help them look forward to the future, especially if they’re questioning what’s next. Here are some ways to support them. 

Look into options for further study

If they didn’t get the ATAR required for the uni course they want but they still want to study, they could: 

Help them get started in the world of work

If they’re keen to start working or to gain work experience, they could:

Think outside the box 

If they want to do something different, or they’re really unsure of what to pursue, they could:

  • go travelling – whether as a short holiday, as a longer backpacking trip, or as a stint living overseas on a working holiday visa 

  • volunteer at an organisation to support a cause they’re passionate about

  • keep exploring their hobbies while they study or work.