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Exam time: how to help (not hinder) your teen

NCEA exams can be a stressful time for the whole family. Child and family psychologist DR SARAH WHITCOMBE-DOBBS has some first-hand advice on keeping things in perspective as you help your child through this tricky period.

Whether our teens are already nervous about exams, or we think they’re not quite taking them seriously enough, supporting our kids through exams can be a delicate exercise.

University of Canterbury senior lecturer in child and family psychology and child and family psychologist, Dr Sarah Whitcombe-Dobbs, says one of the most important things we can do to support our children is to keep things in perspective.

As adults we can inadvertently send the message that academic outcomes are the most important thing in our lives, she says. Think how often at family gatherings teens are asked how NCEA (National Certificate of Educational Achievement) is going and what they plan on doing next year, for example.

“We send this message that worth and social status is to do with these,” Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says.

“They can feel that if they mess up on the day that’s the end. That somehow they’ve failed in a much broader sense.

“But your worth as a person is inherent and separate from academic outcomes.”

A parent’s job is to help their teens see that “everything is solvable, everything is repeatable,” she says.

“Hold it a bit lightly for them. Model that your love and sense of them as a valuable and capable person is not resting on their performance in these exams”.

Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs offers these further tips for helping your teen through the exam period.


Get a gauge on how your teen is feeling about exams by listening to their concerns and worries. When they’re feeling calm, you can then problem-solve any issues together.

Get the basics right

Obvious? Yes, but making sure your teen is getting good sleep (particularly the night before an exam) and good food can be easier said than done. Ensure they have a good breakfast the morning of an exam. Again this seems obvious, but teens can get into a habit of skipping breakfast.

Prepare a physical study space for them

Some teens will be just fine studying on their bed with the laptop, amidst a sea of chaos and squalor and actually do quite well.  But many won’t. The distractions of the mess, the phone, and games console could be too much. 

“Create a space that’s nice and supplied with snacks. For a lot of kids that’s not their bedroom,” Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says.

Check everyone knows where and when

Is your teen planning to go to all their exams? Or do they think they have enough credits already to pass? Do they know where to go and when? Discuss this early so you can iron out any potential issues ahead of time.

“Where’s the information about the exams – let’s put it up together,” Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs suggests.

“Ask them: ‘How do you want me to help make sure you get to all your exams?’”

If they don’t have the information they need, help them find it online, or get in touch with the school.

Let the little things go for a while

Now is not the time to fight with your teen over the state of their bedroom or emptying the dishwasher. Give them a bit of latitude for the exam and study period when they might be feeling a bit overwhelmed.

“Having a big barney the night before an exam means they probably won’t sleep that well,” says Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs, so perhaps give it a miss this time.

Look after your own mental health

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and irritable yourself, it’s going to be hard to let things go for your teen.

“If you have a bad day at work and walk in the door in a grouchy frame of mind and find the kitchen a mess, you’re more likely to be grumpy and irritable, rather than having that calm frame of mind, Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says.

She suggests having fewer obligations yourself over this period.

“That may mean that if you have younger ones in the house, asking for help from grandparents or friends with pick-ups and drop-offs if that’s going to put less pressure on the household.”

Help your nervous teen reframe exams

‘I’m terrible at exams,’ some teens may say. But Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs points out that this is a belief statement, not a statement of fact and that exam technique is a skill that can be learned like any other.

Help your child to research exam techniques (there is plenty of information online) or talk to teachers early on about this. Doing lots of exam dry runs can really help with those nerves and means students will have strategies at the ready if, for instance, the first question on the paper is one they don’t know.

Talk to your child about ways they can calm themselves down before, or during an exam if they need to, Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says. This might be by using breathing or mindfulness techniques. A simple exercise can be to stop and notice three things you can see, hear, feel, and smell, to help calm the mind. Have one or two calming techniques ready in case they’re needed.

Plan for the aftermath

Plan for something “fun and yum” after an exam, she suggests. Remember that exams are hard and draining, so teenagers will need a break, even if they have another exam coming up the next day.

While some teens are going to want to talk to you about the exam afterwards, others aren’t. Give them the space to do what they need to do.

“If they go into their room and shut the door and go on their phone for a few hours, it’s not the end of the world.”

And remember, as Dr Whitcombe-Dobbs says: “There are multiple pathways to living a good life”.

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