The release of Year 12 results is a difficult and stressful time for teenagers and parents alike. Parents can feel hopeless when their children experience the huge emotional burden that comes with finding out if their results are high enough to get into the course of study they wish to pursue. Previous research has found that more than 40% of year 12 students experience anxiety symptoms high enough to be of clinical concern, and the release of final results can be the pinnacle of anxiety for many young people.
The following three strategies may help parents support their children through the emotional period of receiving exam results.
1) Help teens name their feelings
“Name it to tame it” is a parenting strategy developed by Psychiatrist Dr Dan Siegel. This approach helps young people name what they are feeling as the first step towards helping them reduce the impact of that emotion.
A parent’s automatic response like “don’t get upset about your results. It’s not the end of the world” may actually cause a child to feel worse as their emotional experience is not validated. It is also possible that a young person who receives lower results than they expected may truly feel like it is the end of the world. By naming what the feeling is (even if guessing), a parent can show that they are trying to understand and support the emotional experiences of their child, which may help the young person feel emotionally validated.
When a young person appears disappointed with themselves when they receive their results, a parent could say something like “looks like you’re disappointed with your results. I can understand that and I’m sorry that you’re feeling that way”. Sometimes the child can then breathe a sigh of relief that the important adult in their life sees their struggle, understands their distress, and is able to be there with them in that tough moment. Some young people may then be able to talk about how they are feeling, whilst others may not feel ready for that conversation. It is important to go at the young person’s pace as much as possible. Just letting your child know that you are available to talk when they want to can be helpful in opening them up to that option later on.
2) Support and Guide Perspective-Taking
When anyone, regardless of age, is going through a stressful time, our unhelpful thinking patterns usually become strong and powerful. For teenagers receiving their final year exam results, certain thought patterns may contribute to and increase feelings of stress, anxiety, pressure, and hopelessness. Repeatedly experiencing thoughts like “There’s no point in trying anymore”, “My future is ruined”, and “My life is over”, can lead a person to experience lower mood and heightened anxiety over time.
Parents can help their children minimise the impact of unhelpful thinking patterns by talking to them and trying to help them perspective-take. These conversations are about empowering the young person, not telling them what they should think (such as “Don’t be silly, don’t think like that, your life isn’t over”). The purpose is to counter-balance their view with other views.
Confirmation bias is an unhelpful thinking style where a person only pays attention to what they believe, and subconsciously ignores any information that does not align with that belief. A common request psychologists make in these situations is: “Tell me all of the evidence that your belief that your life is over might be true”. Then they ask, “Now tell me all of the evidence that your belief that your life is over might not be true”.
On the whole, reality exists somewhere in between these two answers. It may seem counter-intuitive to encourage a young person to talk about all of the reasons why they think that their exam results mean that their life is over, but they are thinking these thoughts in their heads anyway. The important piece is to counter-balance their view with other views.
Parenting is hard. Adolescence is hard. The process of gaining entry into university is hard. It is important to remind parents that the emotional struggles they experience and the big feelings their children experience are a part of life and a part of what everyone across the world goes though at different times in their lives.
We can choose to be kind to ourselves in these moments of struggle and stress and think about giving ourselves the compassion we need. For parents and children alike, this can be as simple as listening to yourself like you would listen to a good friend. Respond to your own stress and emotional pain as you would respond if your close friend was feeling it.
We tend to be very critical and harsh with ourselves, but kind and compassionate to others. So next time as a parent you are thinking, “I’m such a bad parent, my child is so sad about their results, I can’t help them, I’m useless”, try to find some words of kindness for yourself. Something like, “wow, this is really tough for all of us. I’m doing the best I can and I can get through this”.
Dr Kristin Neff is a leader in self-compassion research and practice and has many useful resources on her website.
Naming feelings, perspective taking and self-compassion are three ways in which parents can help their children navigate receiving their year 12 results.
If this article has raised issues for you or your child, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 1800
Learning and Development Manager – Behaviour Support and Psychological Services
For the last 20 years, Eimear has worked in mental health, child protection and disability, with an unwavering passion for embedding person-centred humanistic approaches in psychological practice. Working as a clinical psychologist and senior leader in the government, non-government and university sectors in Perth and regional WA has given her a strong grounding and focus on compassionately healing others. Most recently, Eimear was the director of the psychology training clinic at Edith Cowan University (ECU), where she led 5 clinical supervisors and 15 provisional psychologist in providing high-quality, ethical psychological services to the community. In her Senior Lecturing role at ECU she provided training for clinical psychology students in foundational therapeutic and professional skills.
Eimear is passionate about disseminating psychological information to multiple audiences. She enjoys writing about psychology and has published two journal articles in peer-reviewed journals and one piece for The Conversation. Whilst at ECU, she created and facilitated staff wellbeing and Alumni psycho-educational sessions on self-compassion, behavioural change and Life Values. She has completed Pod Cast interviews for YouTube in collaboration with a suicide prevention charity organisation and has assisted journalists in print media articles and radio interviews.
Eimear is also focused on giving back to the community and volunteers with the Lion Heart Camp for Kids and is an Executive Director (Secretary) on the Board of Management for ConnectGroups WA.
She is driven to create systemic change in our society and does this by supporting best practice in the development, training and supervision of early career psychologists at ORS.