Matric parents: how to counter anxiety with strategy

The intense pressures of getting through the exams and achieving the best possible results affect not only the well-being of the learners but their families as well. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

With the first Grade 12 exam papers behind them, but several still to come in the weeks ahead, panic and anxiety over their children’s performance are starting to get a hold on parents across the country.

But while it is understandably stressful if things appear not to be going well, parents should be aware that their fears can further impact on learners’ ability to perform, and rather take action to ensure that they can still do their best on the papers that lie ahead.

We are seeing a lot of parental anxiety being expressed at the moment, particularly on social media, and want to warn parents about the unintended consequences, including increased pressure, which can negatively impact on exam writers. Anxiety and emotional tension are contagious, and can induce feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness, especially in learners who are already concerned that they are not going to live up to the expectations of their schools and their families.

Understanding the actions that can be taken at this stage of the game, can assist to reduce stress and ensure learners and parents feel empowered to continue climbing what feels like an Everest at the moment.

The things to remember with the papers that didn’t go well are firstly that once you hand in the paper there is nothing more you can do, so you need to let it go.

It is pointless to obsess about something that you cannot control, for instance thinking about the points you forgot, the way you could have better answered certain questions, or even the fact that you could have studied harder.

It is far better to focus on what you can still do now, for instance studying harder for the next paper.

It should also be kept in mind that most subjects have more than one exam, so learners may still have another chance to improve their mark for a specific subject.

Parents should guard against playing down disappointment following a bad exam experience.

It is not helpful to say ‘it will be fine… I’m sure you did well’, if the learner knows things didn’t go as planned. Instead, acknowledge the disappointment and concern, and work with the learner to identify what was learned from the experience, and how his or her approach to future papers can be improved as a result.

The best way for parents and guardians to assist their children now, is to create a positive and enabling environment.

Help your child by identifying ways in which they can manage stress and anxiety, for instance through breathing techniques, and ensuring they sleep and eat well. Notice when panic starts to set in, and take a few minutes to work through it until the mind is settled again.

If parents manage and regulate their emotions and expectations, they will be in a better position to help young people focus without the distraction of various dreaded scenarios sapping their emotional energy.

Parents and learners all should also keep in mind that while it goes without saying they would have preferred excellent results and optimal performance, even if the worst-case scenario came to pass, there would still be many options open to them.

For instance if a learner doesn’t achieve the marks required to take up their space at their higher education institution of choice, they could do a rewrite or investigate other options – and there are so many – for which they do qualify. Or those who don’t achieve a Bachelor’s Degree pass could consider doing a Higher Certificate next year, which will also give access to degree study.

Ultimately, there are still several weeks of papers ahead, and a bad start should not be allowed to overshadow the final exam in its entirety.

There is still time to turn the ship around, and that is easier done when everyone is calm, collected, and committed to making full use of the opportunities to perform that are still to come.

Dr Gillian Mooney is an education expert and Dean of Academic Development and Support at the Independent Institute of Education.