A parent’s guide to Leaving Cert stress

A parent’s guide to Leaving Cert stress

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

It’s a nail-biting time watching your young person prepare for the Leaving Cert. In 2021, students were given the choice between sitting the exam, receiving an accredited grade, or both. Approximately 58% of students chose to sit the exam in some capacity.

2022 sees the Leaving Cert return to a more traditional format, while incorporating more choice for students. This document has the adjusted assessment arrangements for taking state exams in the 2021/22 school year. These adjustments are designed to take account of the disrupted learning experienced by students during the pandemic.

We asked Jigsaw clinicians how they support and advise parents and young people finding it hard to cope with Leaving Cert stress. They suggested the following strategies and tips to support your young person and cheer them up. They also advised how to keep yourself and your home calm during these challenging times.

Don’t demonise stress

Remind them you are proud of them no matter what. Let them know you want them to do their best, not be the best.

Girl with head in hands studying with laptop and notpads

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, 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.

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

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.

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 the situation, keep it to yourself. Sometimes Leaving Cert stress can feel contagious in the house, like everyone is on edge. Do your best to avoid such an atmosphere. Ask yourself, how can I calm the energy in this house?

Remember that with their friends, they’re talking about exams. So, give your child a refuge and mental break from exam talk at home. Don’t add pressure to an already pressurised situation.

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. This year is a unique experience, so comparisons are not helpful.

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 playing video games 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. 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.

Two people walking side by side across the road on a zebra crossing

Find the right opportunity to chat

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

Check in and see how they’re managing. 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. Read more about starting that conversation here.


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

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.

Girl asleep in bed

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 make time in their schedule to do their extracurricular things. Interests/ activities that up until now have been what keeps them well and feeling 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 to 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.

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