Expert Advice

How to safeguard your child’s wellbeing leading up to exam time

School anxiety is a very real thing and it can skyrocket at this time of year.

By Marina Cilona
You might feel like the worst part of your child's final year at school is traipsing around the shops, feigning enthusiasm for yet another plunging formal outfit. But it's not. It's not the constant battle against social media or the study "pep talks" which have devolved into straight up bribery. It's none of these things.
According to research conducted by Cluey Learning, 75 percent of current senior students have experienced some form of anxiety over their ATAR result.
Marina Cilona and the team at Cluey Learning have launched #ATARanxiety, a campaign encouraging students to shift focus from their final number to what can be done today. (Image: Supplied)
Worse than any real battle over dresses and study schedules is the silent one you will witness in the lead up to final exams.
"The final year of school is very stressful for all students, but anxiety seems to be more common in kids who don't have a plan or a structure," says John Falvo, who heads the HSIE department at Strathfield South High School.
"Some teenagers just don't know how to approach the HSC, especially if they're the first ones in their family going through it. They can carry a lot of weight of parental expectations, which aren't always realistic."

Identifying the signs of anxiety in your child

Anxiety presents in a number of ways, depending on the person and context. "Signs can be physiological (e.g. butterflies in the stomach, a sick feeling, sweaty hands, heart racing, shortness of breath) and cognitive (repetitive or intrusive thoughts, excessive worry)," says Sydney psychologist Jemma Rollo. "Behavioural signs parents can look out for can include distraction, agitation, avoidance and procrastination."
Falvo says that anxiety often presents in excessive absenteeism, especially leading up to assessment and exam periods. "I also take note of changes in a students' mood — they become a lot quieter and tend to close themselves off from their social networks."
At home, parents can identify diminishing appetites or a lack of sleep in their children as signs of a more serious anxiety disorder.
WATCH: How to cope with stress and anxiety. Continues after video ...

Understanding why your child might be experiencing anxiety

ATAR anxiety is often due to real or imagined pressure about achieving the 'right score'. This might be based on university entrance requirements or it could just be about creating a sense of identity around scoring top marks.
"Families who are aspirational tend to put a lot of pressure on their kids," says Falvo. "Often this will link with inappropriate subject selection which the child can't necessarily cope with.
"Behavioural signs parents can look out for can include distraction, agitation, avoidance and procrastination." (Image: Getty)

Helping your child through anxious feelings

"It's important to have conversations with your kids about anxiety, especially if they feel that they're not going to be able to deliver the magical ATAR that's required to get into their first-choice course," says Falvo.
Helping your child break their work up into smaller chunks is key to managing senior workloads. A balanced routine which incorporates study, exercise, good eating habits, and a positive social network is also crucial.
Although a good ATAR can open many doors, the most important thing is that you have a teenager who is a happy person, who has a purpose, who knows that they're supported and loved, and that their successes are shared and celebrated.