Surviving the Leaving Certificate Exams – A Parent’s Guide

Most of the time when we talk about exams like the leaving certificate or junior certificate, we focus on the students and the stress that they are under – but we forget about their families. The young people studying and writing these exams are not alone in this time, and sometimes it is their parents who are experiencing the most stress! In today’s Therapists Thoughts article, the Centre’s lead therapist Sharron Grainger shares some advice from her own experience with parents who are in this with their children. We’ll all get through this!

surviving the leaving certificate

Having just attended (and getting over) my youngest daughter’s 6th year graduation night, it was very evident that the stress in the hall was not in fact coming from the students – they were on a (natural) high, all dolled up and heading out on a ‘sesh’- but from their long suffering parents, and that includes me!

Now, this is not my first LC Rodeo – nope, I’m a seasoned professional at this, what with it being my third bout of Leaving Certificate stress.
As the’ Summer Quiz’ looms in the coming weeks, parents were talking to me about what their daughter hopes to do following the exams and what they weren’t actually doing in order to get the points needed to ‘fulfil their dreams’. I have sat through my fair share of melt downs, tantrums and frustrations – and that’s just the parents – and listened to the teenagers as they relay how they can’t remember what they should know and don’t know what it is they should remember!! I mean we have all been there, exams are stressful for most – but not all I might add.

If you are parents of one of these students hurtling towards the JC or LC, you may need a little advice, so here goes…..

Your teen possibly belongs to one of two camps – those that never stop studying or those that can’t be bothered. Be aware that neither camp is the better option (and I should know, I’ve experienced both). For the child that can’t ‘take a break’ because there is so much to do before the big day and runs the risk of total burn out at the home stretch, and those that no matter how many times you say ‘shouldn’t you be studying’ only for them to respond by ‘going off on one’, the best thing you can do is SAY NOTHING! I know that’s hard to do but right now anything that you say isn’t going to make a difference no matter how often you say it.

There is a fine line between motivating and aggravating! Many teenagers are presenting in my therapy room with high levels of anxiety due to the constant reminder to study, but guess what? They already know! Encourage your teen to take 10 minute breaks every hour otherwise they will find that they are just going through the motions and aren’t really concentrating on what they are doing. Tea, fizzy drinks, chocolate and chips are all very welcoming at this stage so keep the house stocked, they can return to a more balanced diet when they finish the exams. But just drop them and leave – unless they invite you to stay. This way they know you care and are there if they need you.

Being silent is very difficult for any parent – me included – and I have taken to putting my hand over my husband’s mouth as my child (the one that won’t stop studying) vents about all there is to do and how there is not enough time to catch up as they haven’t even finished their Chemistry course just yet. Dad wants to ‘fix it’ but his well-meaning words just aggravate the situation, so we let her vent and when she pauses for breath I utter two words…..full stop? If she’s finished venting she will say yes, if not, she will say, no comma….and we let her continue. She always feels better afterwards and we have avoided making the matter worse. Sometimes they just want you to listen, so the least said the better!

Pick your battles – now is not the time to expect them to have their room tidy and yes, it drives me mad too, but I have learned how to deal with the mess/devastation that masquerades as their bedroom – CLOSE THE DOOR! – if you can’t see it, it’s not a problem for now. If they ‘go off on one’ because there is only brown bread in the house, let it slide for now. Try saying something helpful like ‘I’ll pick some up for you the next time I’m out’; or, ‘is there anything that you’d like me to get you when I do the next grocery shop?’ This may sound silly but every little thing you do matters and they all add up.

Encourage your teen to do some active relaxation like a guided meditation, belly breathing or progressive muscle relaxation. Even five minutes of actively eliciting your relaxation response can make a huge difference. Tell them they are doing great and to keep it up, even for those in the ‘can’t be bothered to study’ camp. A little encouragement may go a long way.

Getting enough sleep is vital for recharging and repairing the body/brain. Your teen should be aiming to get at least 9 hours of sleep every night. Make sure they have a good night time routine like, winding down the final hour before bedtime and staying off screens – which I know is difficult if they’ve been studying all day, they’ll want to find out what they’ve missed! Get them to avoid sugary or caffeinated drinks and foods during this hour as they will only make it more difficult to nod off.

You might not like your teens choice of course, but it’s their life not yours and we don’t always know what’s best for them, even if we think we do. They will find their feet and can specialise when they finish the first four years of study if they want. Remember that anxiety is contagious and if your teen senses that you are anxious about their choice, of course they will become even more anxious and confused.

There IS more than one route for your child to fulfil their dreams – UNI/College isn’t for everyone. I firmly believe that we all have a time in our life where we are more receptive to studying, so maybe now is not the right time for your teen. It’s not the be all and end all. Many successful people didn’t even sit their final exams and still managed to have VERY successful careers despite it.

As I nostalgically flick through my LC teen’s final year book, I am reminded about how quickly life passes us by and I ponder, would I like to be going through all this stress with a teen again? And the answer is yes! Because each time I do I learn something new. I guess I’ll just have to wait for the grand kids to come along! In the meantime, if you are finding the exam stress overwhelming get in touch, I REALLY know what you’re going through!

You can reach us on counsellor.ie or by phoning 01-2100600 to book your appointment today.

Sharron Grainger
Lead Psychologist & Psychotherapist

Phone: +353 1 2100 600
Fax: +353 1 278 9851
297 Beechwood Court
Stillorgan, Co Dublin