How to manage teens' expectations after exams

Mum and teen girl standing outside on the verandah. Mum is looking reassuringly at the teen and tucking her hair behind her ear.

With the hardest part being over, the end of exams can bring relief and joy. But after a while, this can turn into stress and anxiety for teens as they wait for their exam results and worry about what they might mean for their plans for the following year.

As a parent or carer, you can help to maintain a degree of stability so that your teen feels comfortable and confident taking their next steps into adulthood. Here’s how you can manage expectations for teens after their exams.

Acknowledge their hard work

Regardless of whether your teen is happy or frustrated with how they did in their exams, it’s worth celebrating the fact they worked hard and completed this major milestone. Celebrating their accomplishment in some way will show your teen that you’re there to support them, no matter what their exam results are.

If they’re stuck in a negative mindset, put aside their expectation of results and spend some time together reflecting on what they learnt about themselves and what they achieved from the experience. 

Maybe they discovered they’re more of a creative thinker, or they became more confident, or they’re proud of how they improved their time management skills. Encourage them to write a list of what went well, as well as what they think they could do better next time.

Shift their focus while they wait for exam results

There are quite a few weeks between the end of exams and when results are released. Your teen might feel restless or anxious during this limbo period, but remind them that there’s nothing more they can do about their exam results now, except be patient.

One thing that can feel weird for teens during these weeks is that they no longer have the structure of going to school every day. Help your teen establish a new sense of routine to get their mind off their worries, as well as to keep them feeling motivated. Some ways this can be achieved include:

  • taking on a casual job 

  • starting a personal project related to one of their hobbies 

  • having more responsibilities around the house.

You can also help to shift your teen’s perception of this time from a ‘waiting period’ to a ‘window of freedom’. It’s the end of the year; exams are over. Encourage them to see this downtime as an opportunity for relaxation and fun before new responsibilities and life changes take over. You could go on a trip with the family as a reset, or if they’re heading off to Schoolies with some friends to shake off their exam stress, share our Schoolies Survival Kit with them.

It’s also a good time to reinforce self-care as a priority in the family routine, especially if your teen wasn’t making as much time for it during their exams. 

Be comfortable with failure

A big part of managing expectations for teens is preparing them for the possibility that they won’t get the scores they were hoping for. The reality is that everyone fails sometimes, and the sooner we can reframe failure as an opportunity to learn, the better we become at embracing both our slip-ups and our successes. 

Remind them that their exam results don’t determine their future and that plenty of people who didn’t get their desired results went on to achieve great things. Tony Armstrong failed his career in AFL before becoming an award-winning TV presenter, and even the famous physicist Albert Einstein failed some subjects and his first uni entrance exam.

Give your teen some examples of when you messed up (and what you did to get through it), and let them know that although failures can feel embarrassing at the time, they’re a normal part of life. They’ll gain confidence and feel reassured by hearing about your setbacks. Watch this video together and hear about how other young people have navigated failure.

Read the transcript

Be open to exploring other options

Ahead of results day, work together on a back-up plan – or multiple back-up plans – in case your teen doesn’t get the ATAR they needed for uni. Of course, they’ll still feel disappointed if they don’t get their first choice of what they want to do after school, but knowing they have something to fall back on can help them stay grounded and give them something else to look forward to. 

If your teen is still set on doing a specific degree or getting into a particular career, you could research different pathways together. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • They could enrol in a different university degree, do that for a year, then transfer into the course they originally wanted.

  • They could do a different type of qualification, such as a certificate or diploma. These can be completed through universities, TAFEs or private colleges, and can either be a stepping stone to a bachelor degree or a direct pathway for your teen to start working in their desired field.

  • Some universities hold ATAR advice events where your teen can talk to staff and current students about specific pathways for that uni. 

  • Internships, traineeships and apprenticeships are ways to get hands-on experience in a lot of different sectors.

But not everyone has a strong idea of what they want to do after school, and that’s okay. If your teen is open to different possibilities or is feeling a bit lost, these are some ways you could help them find a path:

Matthew Green, a father of five, has some tips on talking to your teen about what they want to do after school.

Get ready for results day

Your teen will probably be dealing with enough nerves already on results day, so avoid adding to the tension with your own nervous anticipation or excitement. 

Here are some tips for how to respond on results day in a way that supports your teen:

  • Be aware of what their expectations are and make sure you’re both on the same page. If you need some guidance with reflecting on your own expectations, try our quiz.

  • Give them time to check their results when they’re ready, as well as space to process their feelings if they need it.

  • Let them lead the conversation and see how they respond to their results before you react, just so you don’t inadvertently dampen their spirits. 

  • Instead of jumping into advice-giving mode, practise active listening with your teen. Encourage them to be honest about how they feel and listen to everything they have to say. 

  • If they’re disappointed with their results, follow some of these tips to help them process how they feel.

  • Don’t compare their results with those of their peers.

When your teen feels ready, help them to focus on the future, instead of getting stuck on their results by discussing what their next steps could be.

Bring in support 

If your teen doesn’t feel great about their results and it’s really affecting them, encourage them to talk about it with someone. This support can help them feel less alone and overwhelmed.

  • Friends could be a good starting point, especially since friends from the same year group might have similar feelings about their results. 

  • Their teachers or school counsellors might also be good support options, since they’re likely to have helped other students in the same situation.

  • If they’re hesitant to open up to someone they know, they could try an anonymous online service such as our Online Community. Or, if they’re over 18, they can talk to a peer worker via PeerChat

  • If they have more serious mental health concerns, they could also see a GP for a referral to a mental health professional.

It’s normal for your teen’s stress and disappointment to take a toll on you, too. Making time for your own self-care will help you to unwind and maintain your energy levels. You can also talk to your own support people about how you’re doing.