As the festive season begins to peter out and the winter chill starts setting in, exam fever starts creeping into the lives of teenage school-going children. Just like the shortened days and increasing pollution restricts their activities and choices, so does the pressure of performance in academics, especially for those who are preparing for board exams and college entrances. Despite the yearly alarm bells amidst the growing mental health problems and associated self-harm behaviors, the fever grips our children relentlessly and with ominous regularly year after year. And we, as parents and adults with supposed agency, watch as hapless bystanders as this three-to-five month -long yearly ordeal unfolds.


Needless to say parents have a central role to play here, both in terms of contributing to the distress (often inadvertently) and what they can do to help their children. I have heard many parents claim that they put no pressure on their children during exams. “We have no expectations about her/his grades as long he/she gives his/her best effort.” they say. But what that best effort is can remain ambiguous and can create all kinds of confusion and pressure on the child’s mind. “My parents say they don’t care about my board marks, but they expect me to get into a good college.” Although they might not say it in many words, most children are trying to live up to their parent’s expectations. They feel deeply inadequate and troubled when they sense that they are falling short. It could manifest as mood swings, sleep and appetite disturbance, a range of fluctuating physical symptoms, becoming aloof and withdrawn, blaming you for their own perceived failures, gravitating towards high-risk behaviors or in worst-case scenarios, deliberate self-harm. To make matters worse, schools are constantly upping the ante and actively discouraging kids from participating in extra-curricular activities. The net result is often stress, without a break, for weeks and months which can become traumatic. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of us continue to have nightmares about our board exams years and, sometimes decades later.

So, what can we do help our kids through grueling and potentially damaging exam experiences? There is no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few pointers that might equip us to collaborate with our children and sail through these crucial rites of passage.


  1. Understand and accept her/his unique learning:-  

Every individual learns and assimilates knowledge differently. Visual learners will learn best by making noise, highlighting, making colorful mind maps, writing relevant information on whiteboards, or from watching educational videos online. Auditory learners like to read aloud, teach others, brainstorm different concepts, use drama or role-plays to help get a deeper understanding of their aspects. Kinaesthetic learners might like to walk around, play with a ball, fidget with small objects, chew gum, or do anything as long as there is some level of movement. Old wisdom about having to sit still to study, may not cut it for most kids these days, especially when they are already exposed in so many different modalities of learning. Equally, some kid may not be able to focus on a task for two hours at a stretch whereas their own sibling might need to get up from their seat every 15 minutes, and that’s okay as long as they are complete most of what they set out to do by the end of the day or even week. 


2, Help him/her to pace it:- 

The weeks and months leading up to the final/board exams might seem like an eternity, with the half yearly unit tests followed by the finals and pre-boards in quick succession, and finally, the dreaded boards. We often find young people exhausted and burnt out by the time the boards arrive. Working with young people, I often use the metaphor of a long race or marathon, and explain that it is hard to sustain if you start sprinting in the beginning. Building one’s stamina in study and perform, through stepwise progression, to be able to peak at the right time becomes essential. Equally, vital is the need to take frequent breaks and even short holidays between the tests and exams, having fun with friends and family, playing a sport or doing art/music activities right till the end. There is clear evidence that sports and creative exercises enhance learning and performance. 


3. Be aware of your own worries and anxiety:- 

Most parents are well intentioned and they mean it when they say their children’s grades don’t matter to them, but they are acutely aware that not getting good grades or into a good college may profoundly affect their child’s happiness and sense of self. That’s when the worries kick in and can take the form of nagging, lecturing, putting rules, and even punishments at times. And this almost always backfires, leading to more frustration and angst. It becomes important, at this stage, to take a step back to reflect on your own emotions and motivations, approach your children with compassion and the belief that they are doing their best just as you are. Deep breathing and mindfulness exercises are recommended for parents too. 


4. It’s okay to seek help:- 

Whether we want to accept it or not, high school years can often take a heavy toll on our children’s mental health, our relationship with them, and indeed, our own self-worth as parents. In times of crisis, you could reach out to a trusted friend, or a sensitive teacher who knows your child well. But sometimes, it becomes essential to have professional understanding and a safe space to unpack your predicament. It could do more than just overcoming exam fever. 



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