It’s that time of year when end of year exams are just around the corner for teenagers. It is a time that many kids and their parents dread, a time where emotions are running all over the show with a lot of walking on eggshells by everyone!
In particular kids who are in year 12 and 13 will be feeling the pressure. Many feel like their entire future depends on the results from these exams, making it one of the most stressful times for children and their parents.
The final years of high school is a weird time for kids anyway. They are trying to transition from high school to “real” life. Kids feel like they are expected to make decisions that will set them up for the rest of their life?! And although they might be verbalising that they can’t wait to finish school, deep down the thought of the real world is probably worrying them!
For teenagers it might seem like the pressure is unbearable but of course as parents and adults we realise that actually, this time – although stressful – is just a blip in time compared to what is about to come in adulthood! (Don’t tell them that though!)
For some kids the pressure of exam time can actually be motivating and a positive experience. But for the majority this pressure is a major stress and something that may negatively impact upon their overall performance.
Many kids will find that this is the first real stressful time that they are exposed to. As parents we need to support them in a variety of ways to make sure that they can continue to cope with the many stressors that life will throw them.
Is it stress/pressure…or something else?
As parents, it’s important to understand what is actually going for our kids. Is it pressure induced stress or is there something a bit more to it like anxiety and depression?
For some kids (and adults) chronic stress symptoms might link in with feelings of anxiety and/or depression. And this is where open and honest communication from both kids and parents is super important.
Let’s not forget that the teenage years are a time of major psychological and physiological changes. In particular there are some pretty major changes in Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity which results in already heightened stress induced hormonal responses. (Does your teenager lash out or cry at the drop of a hat?!).
During this time the brain is maturing, particularly in the limbic (motivation, emotion, learning and memory) and cortical (memory, attention, perception, cognition, awareness, thought, consciousness) regions of the brain. Just look at all these functions that are involved! Explains a little why our precious kids are literally all over the show!
Emerging research is showing that stresses experienced during this time of brain maturation may affect the neural maturation to the extent that it may contribute to negative psychological symptoms such as anxiety or depression. Think of it as a memory bank. What happens during this time is stored away in key parts of the brain so that if it happens again, the brain remembers how to react.
Because the adolescent brain is quite sensitive to stress induced neuro behaviour, as parents we need to be acutely aware of the need to support our teenagers. (i.e. lets try not to nag too much huh?!)
Top 10 tips for managing these stressful times
- Ensure your stressed-out teenager is eating well. Of course, this is written by a Nutritionist! But just remember all those important nutrients from real food will help with brain function, in particular mood and cognition. Dead foods are those that have been heavily processed (in a packet or fast food) and will not nourish the brain (or the body for that matter). Important dietary fats, brightly coloured vegetables and berries, and hydrate with water will be essential during this time.
- Support your foundation of good nutrition with supplements. What does this mean? Sometimes good nutrition is just not enough and we need to layer in some supplements to support brain function. The most obvious supplement would be a good quality Fish Oil (or Hemp or Flaxseed for vegetarians/vegans). Remember our body cannot make Omega 3, we must get it from food or supplements. Omega 3 is essential for brain structure and function. And remember also its not just about what is happening right now, but setting young adults up for their elder years to help reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s but also reducing their risk of mood disorders. Other supplements that many teenagers report as being beneficial include protein powder, turmeric complex, magnesium as well as zinc.
- Make sure your teenager is switching off any devices early enough so that they are getting at least 8 hours sleep a night. To them it might seem like you are chopping a limb off, but by now we should all know the impact of using devices late into the night has on our sleep cycle. Although they might not know or agree, a device is just an unnecessary stress – but one which they do actually have control over. We need 8 hours sleep because within that time we need to have 4 cycles of the REM stage of sleep. During REM is when our brains process and filter what has happened to us during the day, storing memories and learning as well as balancing moods. The first sleep cycles each night have shorter REM sleeps and during the night at each cycle the duration of REM periods lengthen, with the last sleep cycle (before 6am) being the longest.
- Exercise and get outdoors. Even better do it as a family. Getting outside and getting some exercise helps to boost the endorphins – the feel good brain chemical messenger – which helps us better deal with stress, but also helps to promote good sleep at night time. Doing outdoor activity or exercise as a family helps to strengthen your own relationship with your kids and shows them good habits on how you yourself manage stress. As the saying goes, “walk the talk”. A sport and exercise phycologist is quoted as saying “families who are able to approach challenges together with an optimistic outlook can develop strong conflict resolution skills and become more resilient” something that we are ultimately trying to teach our kids.
- Breathing to de-stress. Deep breathing (or for those that want to give it a go -mediation) is one of the best (and free!) ways to lower stress in the body. When you take the time to concentrate on deep breathing you are turning on the relaxation response which helps to decrease your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension. This is something that can be done throughout the day to manage stress, or at night time to help relax the body into a good nights sleep!
- Use a herbal tea for stress and relaxation. These are a great way to gently incorporate herbs as a way of supporting stress. Chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower or lavender may be super helpful and a much better choice compared to some of those lousy energy drinks on the market!
- Help them out at home. Don’t do everything for them, but acknowledge that this is a fragile time for them. Communicate with them that you are helping them out to get them through this tough time, but that they shouldn’t expect this kind of leniency all the time! Also part of becoming a young adult is that they help you out during your stressful times. But they will only understand these expectations if they are communicated well in advance.
- Speak to someone – outside of the family circle. Sometimes speaking to an expert such as a Clinical Psychologist can help to put things into perspective for our kids. We know that life is overwhelming for our teenagers (most of us can remember these tough times!) and we can see their eyes glaze over when we try to give them advise around stress. (Am I right?!) And then we know what they are thinking (because we thought it ourselves once upon a time) “what do you know mum…you don’t understand…” arrrghhh. So this is where speaking to someone such as a Clinical Psychologist who has the tools to communication well might just be able to help support our teenagers through this time.
- Help them to keep organised. Without being on their case too much, but because their thought processes may be all over the show, it is important to gently support them with organising their day/week.
- Communicate is the key. Yes, although teenagers seem to shut down verbally, now is the time to keep those lines of communication flowing. Some days it might seem like its one way traffic. But remember to always be available for them. That means switching off devices (TV or phone/tablet) and actually engage with them. Show them you have their attention. If they are communicating with you try not to interrupt – make sure you are an active listener (someone who concentrates, understands, and responds in a way that offers trust). Above all of course show them the love you have for them. Sometimes a good old fashion toddler cuddle can be all the communication they need to understand your support.