“I feel stressed; everything seems to be coming together, I can’t cope.” This is not an uncommon train of thought for some students with an impending Leaving Cert or set of Christmas tests looming around the corner. Given the normality of some form of stress in these situations, we may have a tendency to trivialise it, but when it comes up suddenly for teenagers, thick and undiluted, it can transport them to a state of panic overnight.
Stress is the body’s nervous system response to a perceived threat; in this case, sitting the Leaving Cert and fear of failure or underperformance. Physiological effects include increased heartbeat, increased blood pressure and breathing rate, tensed muscles, and inability to concentrate. Some people even claim a sense of suffocation. Over time, this can cause more serious long term problems which is why people are advised to visit their GP. According to Dr Harry Barry, who has written extensively on the subject, the key to breaking the cycle of stress is the ability to adapt and problem solve. "We need to teach our children resilience," he said. So rather than trying to eliminate stress, it is more about finding ways to control it. Stress is part of life and a little pressure helps us to perform better so we can look at it as valuable experience while still being cocooned to some degree at school. So how can parents help if they see their children are becoming overwhelmed?
Break it down
Help them to identify the different elements they feel are bringing them down. If a CAO application is part of the problem, reassure them they have until late June to finalise this. Base expectations on past performance and doing their personal best. Get them to revise their study plan and have clear dates for when all their project based subjects are due. Prioritise these. I have discussed the importance of a study plan in earlier articles. Consistency is key. Studying together with friends occasionally can yield some light relief where they can actively teach one another. Most importantly, encouraging them to develop persistence and make sacrifices are life-long skills that they will tap into again and again.
Set aside some time for leisure activities: swimming, gym, etc. If you haven’t got any interests that keep you active, walk. You need a little down time every day. I used to carry so much tension in Leaving Cert year, I would run around the field after school, sometimes barefoot like a lunatic! Science explains that exercise releases the happy hormone serotonin in the brain, and this helps you de-stress and build resilience in the face of a challenge.
Try to encourage your son/daughter to eat a well-balanced diet at this time. Nutritionists tell us to avoid high sugar foods, and too many high caffeine drinks. Students who don't have breakfast before going to school do not have the same level of concentration as those that do.
Research has shown that if people develop some mindfulness skills they are more protective against the impact of stress. The concept of mindfulness encompasses a lot more than just breathing techniques, although these alone can ease the onset of panic. This is about training your mind to come into the present. At the very least, aim to make yourself come back to the present when you notice your mind wandering. We encourage teenagers to download the app, headspace.com and explore it for themselves.
Get enough sleep
We all know that not having enough affects us mentally. Sleep helps aid our concentration and thinking skills. It is best if communication devices are left outside the bedroom.
Good social support
If your child is getting very stressed, ask him/her to speak to the school guidance counsellor who is trained in listening skills. You will get a good sense from the parent-teacher meeting how your child is getting on in school. Keep the channels of communication open and ask him about his day, even if you only get a grunt! Be aware of his friendships. Most importantly, don’t increase the pressure. One of the most things that teenagers report affect them negatively is being compared to other siblings. If the problem is more serious, talk to a psychologist or counsellor.