Helping Children Cope With Exam Stress: Tips From A Parenting Workshop

Are you part of the solution, or part of the problem? Before parents can help their children deal with stress, they should ask themselves if they are a contributing factor, says counsellor and trainer Halbert Louis. Halbert has mentored youths while leading churches around Southeast Asia, as well as during his tenure at the ITE College Central, where he served as life skills lecturer. “Coping with stress is a life skill,” he says. “If you want to thrive in Singapore, you have to learn to cope with stress.”

61686060 - portrait of a frustrated elementary school student thinking his exam in the classroom

Speaking at a workshop for parents of primary schoolers, Halbert says parents should be alert to the signs of stress in children, and these include:

– Headaches, stomachaches, or feeling “sick” 

– Tension in the body

– Anxiety

– Aggression, irritability, or mood swings

– Depression

– Nightmares

– Changes in appetite or sleep habits

– Withdrawing from usual activities

– Bedwetting

– Unusual negative behaviour

Common stressors for children in the local context are often related to academic performance, and these include unrealistic expectations from both parent and child, the fear of failure, poor time management, and a negative mindset. Other stressors that parents should be aware of are body image issues as well as pressures arising from social networking. To support children in stressful times, Halbert advises parents to keep the following tips in mind.

Reflect on whether you are sending your child mixed messages. “You may be telling your children that a lower grade is acceptable as long as they have tried their best,” says Halbert. “But your tone, your facial expressions, and your gestures may be sending another message to your child instead. If there is a lack of acceptance on your part, it will be apparent in your interactions with your child.” Halbert recommends being honest with your children if you are concerned about their school progress, and one way to do this is to say, “I feel anxious,” and explain why. 

Get to the root of the problem. Physical and emotional signs of stress are a result of underlying negative thoughts and beliefs. “I must get an A” or “My parents won’t accept me if I don’t perform well” are examples of debilitating beliefs that need to be addressed. “Does your child feel safe enough to tell you how he or she feels? Only when they can express their feelings to you, will you be able to deal with their problems at the root,” says Halbert. Look for opportunities to foster communication between family members, such as over the dinner table, or while commuting. 

To listen well, put your agenda aside. Parents often approach their children from a task- or result-oriented perspective. “When we are fixated on an agenda, be it completing homework or attaining an ideal result, we lose the ability to be good listeners,” says Halbert. “Learn to listen without brushing off your children, correcting them, or advising them. All you need to do is listen and acknowledge their feelings.” He recommends a counselling technique known as “summarising,” where parents listen to their child and respond by saying, “It sounds like I’m hearing that you feel [EMOTION] because of [REASON]. Is that right?”

Learn to empathise. “A parent’s typical response is to launch into problem solving,” says Halbert. “Deal with your children’s emotions first, and once they feel better, you can start to discuss solutions by asking them, ‘What do you feel like you want to do about this?’” Another question that Halbert has used as a conversation starter with his own daughter is this: “How are you feeling about life right now?”

Develop a sense of responsibility in your child. A child can experience stress when they are overly reliant on others, says Halbert. Teaching them life skills, such as goal setting, and helping them to cultivate a growth mindset can empower them to improve themselves. “But learning on its own should be motivating,” he adds. “So help your children to find joy in it.”  

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