• “It’s when the stress is greater than the ability to cope that it can become a problem.” (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Sitting major exams is by no means an easy feat for high school students or their parents. Here are 5 top tips to help parents cope with the pressure of the HSC and better support their teens through the academic right of passage.
Jo Hartley

27 Oct 2016 - 3:08 PM  UPDATED 27 Oct 2016 - 3:10 PM

Lindsay Black’s daughter is currently sitting her HSC in Sydney.  Naturally, it’s been a new life chapter for them both.

“I’m very lucky in that my daughter has her head screwed on and is very dedicated to her studies,” says Black.

“But there’s still been lots of tears, high emotions and plenty of chocolate eaten.”

Black says that her daughter has always been a straight-A student. During her HSC this month, this pressure to perform to a high academic standard has caused her slightly more stress.

“She’s determined to do her best, but I think having always achieved high grades she feels more under pressure because she wants to sustain that,” she says.

“I have every confidence that she’ll do well, but I’ve also told her she can only do her best, and that’s all I ask.”

“She’s determined to do her best, but I think having always achieved high grades she feels more under pressure because she wants to sustain that."

Executive director at the Raising Children Network Associate Professor, Julie Green, says Year 12 and the HSC is a time of high stress, anxiety and pressure for many young people. 

This stress is associated with a large workload, pressure (from themselves and others) to do well, as well as the anxiety that goes with sitting an exam and anticipating the implications of the results.

“Stress in teenagers, or anyone, isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it’s a way for us to learn how to face and cope with challenges,” says Green.

“It’s when the stress is greater than the ability to cope that it can become a problem.”

Sitting the HSC can provide enormous challenges, particularly for those who have minimal or no English or those who’ve had a very limited or different education experience overseas.

“It’s when the stress is greater than the ability to cope that it can become a problem.”

Acting CEO of Refugee Council of Australia, Tim O'Connor, says refugees in particular may also have the added challenge of having no family networks for support, additional stress from their past experiences or discrimination or racism.

“Young people from refugee backgrounds may feel an extra pressure to succeed at school,” he says, “because finding employment can be more difficult for those who may have to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers and visa restrictions or uncertainty.”

Signs of stress in teens can range from nervousness, irritability, agitation or frequent crying to an inability to sleep or make sensible decisions. Stress can also affect appetite so there may be signs of not eating well, feeling sick, or losing or gaining weight. 

How you can help

So what should parents do to help their teen survive the HSC?

1. Stay connected 

“The most important thing throughout this time is to stay connected and talk to your teenager about how they’re feeling, and encourage positive, helpful thinking patterns,” says Green.

Green suggests being interested in their exam timetable, what they’re doing and what they need help with.

“Use their cues to guide the conversation and keep it light rather than interrogatory,” she says. 

“If they’re feeling like tasks are huge and overwhelming, it can help to talk with them about how to break these into smaller, more manageable chunks.”

2. Encourage routines

Green notes that it’s also helpful to have routines that support good health and wellbeing during the exam period. 

This can include having regular mealtimes, healthy snacks and meals, and encouraging times for physical activity and exercise to help ‘burn off’ the stress hormone cortisol.

3. Get some shut-eye

Getting an adequate amount of sleep is vital. “While teens may be tempted to stay up late to study, this isn’t always productive as they still need at least nine hours sleep a night.  So, where you can, encourage a regular bedtime,” says Green.

4. All-round support

Clinical psychologist, Sally-Anne McCormack, explains that ‘free time’ during an exam period like the HSC should be considered.

“One of the most important things during this time is that, as well as giving your teen time to study, you’re ensuring that they have free time too,” she advises.

McCormack says this should incorporate time with friends, time working – 10 hours per week is often used as a guideline, time outdoors, and time relaxing. However, it’s all about balance. 

If you’re finding yourself getting frustrated with your teen’s lack of study or commitment, she suggests implementing consequences for their behaviour, rather than nagging.

“For example, your teen may be required to complete one hour of homework before being allowed to use one hour of screen time,” she says. 

“The more homework that they do, the more screen time they may earn. But, it’s not negotiable for them to have their screen time first. Think of it like we’re not paid before we do our jobs!”

5. Patience is a virtue

Despite this, McCormack says that remaining understanding and patient, particularly around assessment and exam times, is key.

“Tempers may fray easily, for both teens and parents, so keep in mind that it’s the “anxiety talking” rather than any other reasons,” she says.

McCormack recommends modeling calmness, not overreacting to their stress or anger and reassuring them that their final marks do not define them.

“HSC is only the first way into tertiary study, but it’s not the ONLY way to get into the courses that they want, and we need to reinforce this message,” says McCormack.

“We need to ensure that they understand that it’s not the “end of their lives” if they don’t achieve the goals that they expect at this point.”

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