Tuesday 15 October 2019

A stressed parent's guide to surviving the Leaving Cert

As mum to a sixth-year student, Arlene Harris is all too familiar with exam pressure. She took expert advice on everything from study to nutrition to ensure plain sailing in the weeks ahead

Arlene Harris with her son Tadhg, who is preparing to sit the Leaving Cert. Photo: Eamon Ward
Arlene Harris with her son Tadhg, who is preparing to sit the Leaving Cert. Photo: Eamon Ward
Arlene Harris with her son Tadhg, who is preparing to sit the Leaving Cert. Photo: Eamon Ward

Arlene Harris

It's been almost 30 years since my Leaving Cert and I can still remember the overwhelming feeling of stress. Fast forward three decades and I am, for the second time, the parent of a Leaving Cert student. But while the pressure to succeed is still as great as ever, I'm determined not to add to it.

My son knows what he has to do so, remembering how I felt myself, I will keep it zipped while providing encouragement, transport and plenty of refreshments.

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But our teens can still work themselves into a frenzy, which can be counterproductive, so I asked some experts for tips on how to get through the next few weeks.

Stick to a schedule

Breda Whelan, Guidance Counsellor at Rice College, Ennis, says a little bit of organisation goes a long way.

"Many have worked hard and are now finding it difficult to keep momentum going," she says. "But it's important to stay calm, be organised and remember that the focus should now be on consolidating information and being very familiar with exam papers.

Meditation and breathing properly can reduce stress and aid revision
Meditation and breathing properly can reduce stress and aid revision

"It's never too late to get organised, put a study plan together and start. Know the exam timetable; make copies and put it on the fridge, in the school bag and bedroom. Highlight when your exams are on as knowing the order of subjects will help you prioritise your study."

Be prepared

While no one knows what questions will be asked, Whelan says it's vital to know the layout of the paper.

"Know the marking scheme and concentrate on questions which are weighted with more marks," she advises. "Know how many questions need to be answered and what choices you have. At this stage, answering previous exam papers is a big part of revision.

"Also plan out how much time you have for each section and stick to it, if you run out of time, leave a space, move to the next question and come back to it later. But stick to the schedule, as attempting all questions is better than only doing a couple. Bring a watch to the exam and use it - and also make sure you have everything else you need: pens, pencils, markers, erasers, calculator, permission for log tables and plenty of water."

Don't forget to sleep

Clinical psychologist, Deirdre O'Donnell says stress is inevitable, but can be managed by establishing a good sleep routine.

"Many students try to cram throughout the night," she says. "However, the body and mind need at least eight hours' sleep to restore energy and perform at their peak. All study should finish an hour before bedtime to allow the brain to unwind - otherwise, the mind will continue to race for a number of hours."

Eat well

Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, Director of Human Health and Nutrition at Safefood Ireland, says following a nutritious diet is vital before and during exams. "Healthy snacks are the smart way to build up long lasting energy," she says. "Choose fresh fruit, yoghurt, nuts or popcorn because cakes, biscuits and chocolate will leave you feeling tired once the initial high wears off.

"Prepare for exams as you would for a marathon - by eating well, getting plenty of fresh air and sleeping well - safefood.eu has lots of realistic tips and suggestions."

Get enough water

Drinking enough and regularly makes it easier to perform to your best," says Foley-Nolan. "Aim to drink 1.5l-2l of fluid per day and take a bottle of water into the exam. Have herbal teas or water when studying and avoid drinks with caffeine. They can interfere with sleep, affect your ability to concentrate and may leave you feeling anxious."

Keep it in perspective

According to psychotherapist, Stella O'Malley, the Leaving Cert creates "family dysfunction" with younger siblings resenting the exam student who may be getting more attention.

"This isn't fair on anyone and means the student shoulders too much expectation about their performance," she says. "So it's better not to make special allowances beyond asking everyone to be quieter, gentler and more forgiving of emotional outbursts. The student should still do their chores, attend meals and family events. This means they keep perspective and the family rejects the false message that the Leaving Cert is the most important event of their lives."

Be encouraging

"Parents often say their child is too relaxed about the Leaving Cert, however, when I meet these children, they often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the exam so just shy away from it," says O'Malley. "These kids need to be led by a sliver string, not pushed with an iron bar as they feel utterly alienated and demoralised by the Leaving Cert."


"Stress can be toxic when it comes from something sinister, but the stress involved with exams is healthy and normal," says Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15 Minute Parenting. "However, it's vital that students relax and don't study too much. I would advise at least 40 minutes of down-time before bed every night - this could be watching TV, going for a walk (30 minutes of daily exercise is advised) or just chilling out.

"Physical contact is very relaxing, so if you have a daughter, you could give her a manicure or pedicure. And while this may not suit your son, something as simple as a thumb wrestle will involve skin-to-skin contact, which is both beneficial and fun."

Just breathe

"When stressed, we often shallow breathe or hold our breath for longer than necessary," says psychologist Deirdre O'Donnell. "A simple technique is to breathe in through the nose for four seconds and allow your lower abdomen to rise. Hold the breath for four seconds then exhale for four seconds through the mouth. This allows you to oxygenate body and brain and it improves focus.

"Download a mindfulness app (Headspace or Calm) and listen to it once a day for three to five minutes. This calms the body's stress response, easing anxieties and allowing more effective revision. Alternatively, listening to music for a few minutes or going out into the garden and connecting with nature can act just as effectively."

Don't project disappointment

During exams, parents must "remain as the adults", says Stella O'Malley, author of Bully-Proof Kids and Cotton-Wool Kids.

"It's too easy for parents to take their frustration and disappointment (if the student is not putting in enough effort) out on the child, but it won't do any good and often leads to storming rows," she advises. "Instead, parents should keep a diary and plan everything they're going to say after the exams.

"Many parents feel they didn't achieve their professional ambitions and lay the blame on their own Leaving Cert. But it's not fair to make their kids shoulder this, so parents need to be honest with themselves about their motivations regarding their child's exams."

Don't criticise

Many students feel that most pressure comes from parents, adds Deirdre O'Donnell. "So it's important to listen when they ask for space or need to talk about their anxieties. Give them support and avoid criticism. Students are already stressed enough without feeling that their parents are disappointed in them as well.

"And don't make comments about how hard someone else is studying or studied, as comparisons are odious. Make it abundantly clear that your love for them is unconditional and not dependent on the Leaving Cert."

It's not the only way

"Studying for exams is essential, but things don't always go the way we want them to," says Joanna Fortune. "So it's important to convey that the Leaving Cert is not the only route."

Guidance counsellor Breda Whelan agrees. "Your life will not be defined by the results in August," she says. "There are so many pathways now to finding what you want to do, the only thing stopping you will be your imagination and desire to achieve it."

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