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How you can help your child manage exam stress

An NCERT survey in 2022 found that children experience anxiety as a result of exams; and parents can also unwittingly add to this pressure

Most children cannot say they are stressed, but stress can manifest in them as headaches or stomach aches.
Most children cannot say they are stressed, but stress can manifest in them as headaches or stomach aches. (Unsplash)

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It’s that time of the year again: the final exam season in schools. It’s when (almost) every minute of a child’s waking hour is accounted for, collectively, by teachers in school and by parents at home. Weekends are no longer relaxing because there is a string of revision tests lined up for Monday. Social life, even for parents, is put on hold, and if at all, carefully rationed. 

Someone I know, mother of an eight and a ten-year-old, has put all her weekend engagements on pause, to resume after the exams. My neighbourhood, which usually livens up in the evenings with the sounds of children skating on the pavement and playing in groups, has assumed a sombre mood as kids troop back home at sharp 1800 hours from their scheduled playtime. 

I am no superhuman, and much as Instagram has taught me about the futility of the entire exercise, I fall prey to this collective sense of seriousness, briefly. My daughter is eight and a half—still not completely aware of the pressure of exams. During her last class test, she was pulled up by her teacher for helping a friend. 

“But you always tell me to help others!” she said to me later, “My friend did not know an answer and I did. I was just helping.” I tried my best at explaining how ‘helping’ can become ‘cheating’ during an exam and got just a ‘Hmm’ in response. If only she could remain cocooned in that blissful ignorance! As my husband would say, we must prepare her for the ‘competitive’ world outside.

So here we are, preparing for the many tests before the final test. The other day as we were doing spellings, she messed up a word memorised and revised twice earlier. “How can you forget this again?” I said, exasperated, before realising that yes, it is perfectly possible to forget things. I know it because I went through it when I sat for exams of my own last December.

Two years back, I had ambitiously signed up for a second Masters degree. How difficult could it possibly be, I had thought to myself. Very difficult, as it turned out. With a project, four papers and 20 books to study from, it was a whirlpool of information and deep regret that I constantly found myself getting sucked into. 'How can you forget this again?’—it is possible, yes, and perfectly normal.

It is also normal to stress. And as science says, some level of stress is actually good for you. Eustress, as it is called, promotes adequate stimulation to perform tasks. It is when stress becomes unmanageable and turns into anxiety that it becomes a problem.

But how do we know that a child is stressed? Child Development Psychologist, Dr Aarti Bakshi, said that ‘most children cannot say that ‘I am stressed’’. “Their stress manifests as headache or stomach ache. They’d say things like 'I am not feeling well’, or ‘I cannot breathe’. They may say they are tired when you know that they have not been playing as much,” she said. Other signs could include bouts of anger, being snappy. “When these happen, a parent should accept that their child could be stressed and it is not an excuse to not do a task.”

A survey conducted among school students across the country by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in 2022, found that 81 per cent children experienced anxiety as a result of ‘exams, studies, results’. The survey covered students in two categories, grades 6-8 and 9-12.

At times, parents also play a role in inducing stress in their children, say experts. “Parents are doing their best but at times they also get into the rat race. There will be comparison with a relative or a friend’s child who is probably doing good in school. A lot of this is society and social media induced,” Bakshi said.

In the long-term, such constant stress can do much harm. Psychotherapist and a certified parenting coach, Dr Madhu Hisaria gave the example of one of her own clients, who, at age three was so severely reprimanded by her mother on being unable to draw a straight line, that it remains fresh in her mind even now, when she is in her 30s. 

“I can say from my practice that 90 per cent cases (related to mental health) have to do with parenting mistakes. Not every child comes from a troubled household, but this push of parents to portray their child as a wonder kid creates problems for them later—personally and professionally,” she said. What starts as academic pressure can lead to a dent in self-esteem and self-confidence, spilling over to one’s non-academic life as well.

So how does one balance it all—the pressure to perform and maintain a healthy life? “It starts at home. Parents have to understand and make their child understand that the only thing in their hand is their effort, not the result. This will help them in their entire life,” Hisaria said, “Also, a strong emotional bonding with parents is the only thing that will help a child face peer pressure in adolescence.”

There’s a new ad by a children’s health drink doing the rounds on the social media these days. It shows a store full of one kind of clothing—black t-shirts in XL size. People come in, confused, and demand to see other kind of clothes, in other colours and in other sizes. ‘Surely, they all cannot be of the same kind,’ they say.

The same applies to my child, and yours.


Azera Parveen Rahman is a journalist based in Jodhpur

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