Understanding exam stress in teenagers

Image of a teenage girl smiling with dad and another teenager in a kitchen.

Final-year exams can be a stressful time for both you and your teen. There are a lot of different factors that might come into play with exam stress, and these will vary from family to family. 

But the great news is, there are many things you can do to help your teenager manage their stress and thrive during this period.

This article can help if you want to:

  • learn about the causes of stress at exam time and how these can affect your teen

  • spot the signs that your teen isn't coping with exam stress

  • help your teen to focus and deal with exam pressure.

What can cause exam stress?

Emotions can run high before, during and after exams. Here are some of the reasons why your teen might feel stressed:

  • They feel pressure to achieve certain grades, as they believe this can determine their whole future.

  • They fear failure or may get stuck in negative thoughts.

  • They compare themselves to their peers. 

  • They struggle with their time management skills and feel overwhelmed by their study load.

  • They have a lot of competing priorities aside from study, such as work, sports or other commitments.

  • They get too distracted from studying by things such as social media or socialising.

  • Mental health concerns, such as depression or anxiety, can make it difficult for your teen to focus on or devote as much time to studying.

  • Other health issues might affect your teen’s capacity to study.

  • The way the education system is structured might not suit your teen.

What are the signs your teen is stressed about exams?

A bit of stress for a short period of time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a certain amount of stress can actually motivate your teen to focus and work harder to get things done. A normal amount of pre-exam stress might look like: 

  • tiredness that goes away after taking a few days off studying or after exams are over

  • butterflies and jitters ahead of the exam

  • anxiety or irritability while studying, but feeling better while taking a break and distracting themselves with something else.

The key thing is to recognise when your teen’s stress has tipped over from being a motivating force to something that impacts both their ability to study and other parts of their life. Some of these signs include:

  • not making time for much else other than studying

  • being withdrawn or disengaged

  • a loss of interest in the things they usually enjoy

  • changes in their sleeping or eating habits

  • skin issues, such as acne breakouts or eczema flares

  • nausea or stomach issues

  • chest pain or tightness

  • increased heart rate and sweating

  • feeling grumpy or irritable

  • teeth grinding and jaw clenching

  • restlessness, including nail biting and fidgeting

  • increased smoking, drinking of alcohol, and drug use.

What can you do to support your teen?

A dad stands next to his son in the kitchen and watches on while the son chops some ingredients. There are two plates with salad in front of them.

Help with time management and concentration

Provide reassurance around their results and future

Help them to unwind and keep their stress levels down

Communicate with your teen and get extra support

Manage your own stress

Year 12 exams can be an intense period of time for your teen. But your being there to cheer on and support them through the ups and downs can do a lot to help them manage their stress levels and keep them feeling positive about life after school.