Managing stress and expectations.

Every major exam – high school or university – are significant milestones in your child’s academic journey. While excelling in these exams is every student’s goal and every parent’s hope, it is important for us to look beyond grades and view the exams preparation and outcome as pivotal moments for your child to learn life skills and build resilience.

Here are practical strategies, tips, and tools to empower your child during the exam period:

1. Teach your child time management skills

Being able to plan, organise and prioritise tasks are critical life skills that will help your child not only to prepare for their exams, but more importantly for life. And these skills need to be taught.

It is possible that some pre-teens or teenagers give up studying for their exams because they are overwhelmed by the content they need to revise and unsure of where to start.

You can help your child hone his planning skills by:

  • Making a list of all the topics they need to study for their exams

  • Helping prioritise by determining the easier topics requiring less time for revision and their weaker subjects that require more study time.

  • Allocating a set timeline for each subject/topic.

  • Using an app or calendar to create the study/revision plan and track progress.

2. Teach your child to think well

Help your child understand that his thoughts influence his emotions and behaviour.

When they are under stress, it is necessary to recognise their A.N.TS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) and replace them with thoughts that are productive, positive and rational.


A.N.TS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) – Reframing to productive, realistic thoughts

  • “If I don’t do well for this major exam, I am doomed.”
    “I will give my best for this exam and am confident I can do well. I will be disappointed if the results are below my expectations, BUT I know I can rise above setbacks.”

  • “There’s no way I can finish all the revision.”
    “There’s a lot to study and revise. I have my study plan and I will follow the plan so that I can finish my revision.’

  • “I always end up not doing well no matter how much effort I put in.”
    “I am worried about not doing well. But I know I always put in effort and do my best. That is more important.”

  • “What if I mess up during the exams, and I can’t answer any of the exam questions?”
    “I am anxious, and I don’t want to mess up during the exams. I’ve done my exam preparation and I’ve learned some techniques to calm myself so I will be okay.”

3. Equip your child with stress management skills

It is important to help your child understand what stress is:

  • a common response when we feel anxious or threatened by challenging situations

  • can be good/beneficial if it motivates us to perform at an optimal level

  • harmful when it is prolonged

  • can be managed, and we can learn techniques to help us cope with stressful circumstances

Find time to talk to your child and understand their stress triggers.

Share with your child strategies and techniques to cope with stress. You may need to demonstrate techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness so that they get a clearer idea of what these entail.

Brainstorm together and write a list of things they can do to relax or self-soothe.

I remember teaching my daughter how to cope with the “butterflies in her stomach” through positive self-talk before entering the exam venue and how to calm herself through deep breathing should her mind “blank out” when she is answering exam questions.

4. Manage your own stress and expectations

Parental stress is contagious. And it is not an overstatement to say that as parents, we can hinder our children’s exam performance when we displace our stress onto them.

Some pre-teens or teenagers may exhibit a nonchalant attitude (much to your chagrin!). In such cases, it is possible that they have given up trying as they feel discouraged by the constant nagging or scolding.

If you are unduly stressed because of your child’s upcoming exams, identify the irrational beliefs that are triggering your fight or flight response.

Here are examples of unhealthy beliefs:

  • “If she aces her exams, I am a good parent.”

  • “My child’s success is a reflection of my worth as a parent.”

  • “If he does not do well in this exam, he will not succeed in life.”

  • “If she performs well in the exams, I have something to brag about in the group/family/community.”

There is nothing wrong in setting high expectations for exam performance. However, when these expectations are motivated by unhealthy beliefs and alienates you from your child, it is needful to take a step back.

5. Ensure your child’s basic needs are well taken care of

A healthy body can better cope with the stresses of the exams.

Make sure your child:

  • Is not skipping meals and is eating nutritious food as nutrition plays a key part in keeping energy levels up

  • Has sufficient and quality sleep

  • Practise good personal hygiene

  • Has time for hobbies or participates in non-academic activities

6. Provide a conducive and supportive home environment

Where possible, avoid getting into conflictual situations or escalating tensions in the home. Witnessing parental squabbles (especially over their upcoming exams) can put immense pressure on your child, while a calm and peaceful home environment can allow them to focus on their revision.

7. Remove distractions

Unplug all digital devices that will distract your child from fully concentrating on their exam preparation. Use them as incentives for after revision.

Try the “When/then” technique to allow your child to “plug in” after their revision. For example: “When you have completed the 2 topics in the study plan, then you can have 20 minutes of screen time.”

8. Be your child’s cheerleader

Your child faces intense pressure during the exam preparation phase. Knowing that you are available to support them emotionally and physically will boost their confidence. You can cheer your child on using their love language:

  • Quality time: Spend one-on-one time in-between study breaks or go for a short walk outside the house.

  • Words of affirmation: “You are making progress in your revision, way to go.”

  • Acts of service: Get them a nice drink; help him to clear their study area.

  • Physical touch: Give them a hug, massage or pat on the shoulder.

  • Gifts: Buy/make them a simple, inexpensive gift.

9. Reassure your child of your love regardless of results

One powerful way to calm your child’s nerves is the assurance that they are loved regardless of their performance.

Have conversations about the purpose of exams: to assess understanding and application of concepts learned in the classroom. While doing well in the exams is a good objective, let them know they are loved for who they are.

10. Practise empathic listening after the exams

It is important to check in on your child after the exams. This is a time your child needs you to listen to their fears and anxieties about the exam paper.

Listen to their sharing without judging. If they have performed well, affirm them.

Avoid scrutinising the paper at length and make comments such as:

  • “If you had studied harder, you would have answered the question correctly.”

  • “Why are you so careless as to have misread the question?”

Major exams are highly stressful experiences for our children. Our active involvement and support during this crucial time is important. We should recognise that excelling in major exams is a laudable goal, but grades alone do not define their identity and future. Focusing on the effort that they have put in and the life skills they’ve learned will help our children learn self-compassion and hold on to hope.

© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Chan Swee Fen

Chan Swee Fen is an ordinary woman who desires to inspire others to make an extra-ordinary impact through her family life and life skills workshops, counselling training sessions and writing.

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