The Sunday Leader

Child Psychology: Dealing With (Exam) Stress

By Dr. Marcel de Roos (Psychologist PhD,)

A little stress can improve performance, but too much is unhealthy

In Sri Lanka, many children have to deal with stress. Every now and then the subject is raised and attempts are made to tackle the symptoms of stress. While this might give short term relief, in the long term nothing is changed. For Sri Lankans, the strong bond between parents and children seem normal. Undoubtedly, this has a positive impact on children: for example they feel safer, they can rely on their parents and they respect them.
The flip side of the coin is that children might depend too long on their parents for their own decision making (like school or university options, choice of a profession, relationships and so on). In addition to this, there seems to be a reluctance to talk about issues with your child; often many things are just not discussed (for instance emotional problems like depression, drugs and alcohol, sexual preferences, and so on). While it is done in all probability out of love and caring for the child, overprotective, too restrictive or demanding parents can cause much stress.

As long as the child’s grades at school are adequate, there seems to be nothing wrong. But at school or university there usually is a fierce competition which is enhanced by the school or university system. Children might feel easily compelled to perform for their parent’s sake which can cause stress. Also, group mechanisms like bullying or being left out are factors that contribute. International research shows that one out of five exam candidates is suffering from extreme stress. It gives them the feeling that they will perform less than in a normal situation. At the exam they suffer from trembling hands and legs, are unable to remember things and sometimes have a complete black out. A little stress keeps us alert and can improve performance while too much stress prevents this.

Some useful pointers (short term solutions) for dealing with stress at an exam are:

Try to be conservative and reasonable about the demands you place on yourself.

Visualise that you will perform well at the exam. Start for example five or six days before the actual exam at the same time as the exam will take place. Make it as realistic as possible. Watch yourself entering the class room, sit behind your desk and start taking the exam.

Relaxation exercises such as focussing on your breathing or progressive muscle relaxation (Jacobson).

Try to study effectively and efficiently in the weeks before the exam.

Despite all the preparations and practice you might get nervous before the exam. Medications like tranquilisers and beta blockers aren’t useful solutions because they reduce your creativity. A herbal pill can work too and has no side-effects. Bring such a pill to the exam in case you need it. Usually when you do have such a pill with you, in all probability you will not use it. When the stress seems structural, it is time to look for long term solutions. One of these can be to try to link the feelings of the present stress with similar feelings in your past. In time, this can give you the opportunity to achieve a more balanced emotional life. To do this you’ll need the help of a professional psychologist.

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