A parent's guide to Leaving Cert stress | Advice for parents | Jigsaw Online

A parent’s guide to Leaving Cert stress

It’s a nail-biting time, watching your teen prepare for the Leaving Cert exams. Every coach knows the stress of watching from the side lines; being deeply invested in the final score but feeling powerless to influence it.

You can’t sit the exam for them but you can do your best to set them up to win.

We asked Jigsaw clinicians how they support and advise the parents and young people that come to Jigsaw because they’re finding it hard to cope with Leaving Cert stress. They suggested the strategies and tips below on how to support your teen, mind them, cheer them on and keep yourself and your home calm during these final crucial months.

Don’t demonise stress

Stress is our bodies’ natural response to a demand or threat. In other words, stress is a normal reaction for a teenager when facing a challenge as daunting as the Leaving Cert. Appropriate levels of stress will help them get through the exams, increasing their concentration and focus.

If your teenager is getting stressed in the days and hours before, reassure them that the stress isn’t necessarily harmful. Leaving Cert stress is a sign that their body is gearing up to deal with the challenge ahead. When heart rate increases and butterflies appear in their stomach, help them to re-frame these physical responses as their body preparing for a challenge.

Stress is harmful if it is constant (such as every day for three months) or veers into anxiety and panic.

They will perform their best on the day if they feel capable and secure in their family’s love.

Try diffuse any panic

If your teenager is catastrophising, saying they are convinced they will fail or be “a failure”, you can help diffuse their anxiety. Remind them you are proud of them no matter what. Let them know you want them to do their best, not be the best.

If they are holding on to the sense that their entire future, and the love and respect of their family hinders on one set of exams, that is immense pressure to manage.

Chat to them (see advice about picking the moment below) about what their expectations are and whether they are realistic. Also talk about what other avenues and options might be open to them if they don’t get the result they want, like other courses or training, or gap years.

They will perform their best on the day if they feel capable and secure in their family’s love.

Bring a sense of calm to your household

Try as much as you can to bring a calm demeanour to your conversations, and to your home in general. If you’re anxious about their exam performance, keep it to yourself. Sometimes Leaving Cert stress can feel contagious in the house, like everyone is on edge as the exams approach. Do your best to avoid such an atmosphere. Ask yourself, how can I calm the energy in this house?

Remember at school and with their friends, everyone is talking about exams. Give your child a refuge and mental break from exam talk when they get home. Don’t add pressure to an already pressurised situation.

A change of scenery, an activity or a different environment can change the energy a lot.

Don’t compare or offer your own experience

Don’t try sharing your own experience of the Leaving Cert. It’s too long ago to be relevant, and in general, anything that beings with “in my day” is grounds for a teenager to mentally mute you. Avoid talking about the study routines of other classmates, brothers and sisters.

Watch what expectations you are putting on your child, even subconsciously. In Jigsaw, we’ve found parents often deny they’re pushing their teens to excel, but then admit to subtle ways of questioning their child’s use of time when it’s not study related. How do you respond if they spend Saturday morning planning football instead of studying?

If you’re struggling with this, try to quantify how many hours your son or daughter is actually doing a week on school work alone. Sometimes parents forget their teenager has been at school all day before they come home and study in the evenings.

Imagine yourself going to work all day and then coming home and doing another four or five hours of cognitively-demanding work. It’s unlikely you could sustain it for long, yet that’s what a lot of young people who are in exam years are doing.

Research shows a positive link between sport participation and academic achievement.

Find the right opportunity to chat

Check in and see how they’re managing, creating a space to hear if something has been stressing them out. You can reduce your chances of getting a one-word answer like “fine” by picking your moment. A change of scenery, an activity or a different environment can change the energy a lot.

You’ll get the best response from a teenager if you’re shoulder-to-shoulder. Try going outside for a walk, or a chat in the car, or asking them to help you prepare a meal.

glass mug of tea

Encourage breaks and wind down time

Breaks are important and one of the first things we deny ourselves when we’re anxious.

You can gently enforce breaks by offering to bring them a cup of tea in 50 minute’s time. Then they have a short break to look forward to and chat to shift the focus of their brain for a few minutes.

After two hours you can suggest they stretch their legs and getting some air; ‘you always feel better after a walk’.

Ideally they should get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.

You can also remind them when it’s time to finish up for the evening. They need time to wind down before bed, or else they won’t be able to sleep for a few hours.

Remind them they need their sleep in order to perform tomorrow; ‘if you don’t feel you have done as much studying as you would have liked today, you have tomorrow but today has to end at a certain point’.

Allow for rest and relaxation

The Leaving Cert is a marathon, but even marathon runners take breaks. When sixth-year students come to Jigsaw anxious, we often review their weekly schedule. If they’ve replaced downtime or sleep with more study hours, we suggest they reverse it.

We make it clear to parents that we recommend students ring-fence time in their schedule to do their extracurricular things. The things that up until now have been what keeps them well and makes them feel good about themselves. These could be socialising with friends, sport, community activities or just watching a movie.  Research shows a positive link between sport participation and academic achievement.

Keep them nourished

One of the most helpful things you can do is have a hot meal on the table for them at the same time every evening. Stock the fridge with healthy snacks. Sugar might give them an energy boost but it will be followed by a crash in concentration and it will affect their sleep. You can also make sure they’re staying hydrated.

Keep a routine

Young people will be determined to live and manage as independently as they can, but you can set up conditions that they’ll thrive in. So keep a regular routine with meals, wake and sleep times.

Check that there are opportunities for the family to connect too, like over a meal a few times a week. Routines will help them sleep. We can’t overstate the importance of sleep, it is essential for them to be able to commit what they studied and learned that day into memory.

Exam season is not an easy time for anyone in the family; coach or player. As much as you can, give your teen a break if they get snappy and short-tempered. Remember your son or daughter is going through an extremely stressful time in their life. It is probably the most stressful thing that’s ever happened to them so far.

Your job as a parent is contain your own anxieties and help your teen contain and manage theirs. And of course, to be that encouraging and supportive voice cheering them on from the sidelines.