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  • Writer's pictureCrabtree Nutrition

10 Ways to help your kids cope with exam stress

This year is the big year in terms of exams in our house with Teen 1 sitting A levels and Teen 2 sitting GCSE in May. With the Mocks out of the way, it suddenly seems like exam season is just around the corner and, whether it’s SATs, GCSEs, A Levels or university finals in your house, as parents we want to know we are doing everything we possibly can to help support our children through what could be a stressful period with lots of anxiety.

Don’t assume your young person is OK. There are some worrying statistics.

59% of UK teens say they feel stress about exams (National Citizen Service, 2018)

84% of further education students feel stressed about exams and a quarter say that stress had a significant impact on their mental health (National Union of Students, 2019)

So, what can you do?

Having honest and open conversations about how your child feels a great place to start. Simply talking about feelings can make a big difference. Remind them about the support system that is in place – who they can go to apart from you – for help and that they are not alone in this.

What's happening inside?

To really understand some of the practical steps you can take, it helps to understand biologically what’s happening inside their body.

The stress response hasn’t changed much since caveman times and, when we’re faced with a stressful situation, our bodies go into fight or flight mode – stay and fight the sabre-toothed tiger or run. The stress hormones kick in to make it easier to do either of those options. Sugar levels in the blood rise so we have the energy to run, heart rate quickens, palms get sweaty so they can grip better, our focus sharpens – but all functions not essential to the job of running or fighting get put on the back burner. The effect is that sleep is often broken, digestion slows, the immune system is repressed, and appetite vanishes. After the stressful event passes, everything should return to normal. But the long, slow approach to exam season, then the exams themselves can mean months of your child feeling in this heightened state. The more they worry, the worse they feel, so the more they worry. It’s a vicious circle.

10 ways you can help

1. Encourage a good routine. That might be helping your young person set up a good revision schedule and/or getting up, eating and sleeping at similar times each day.

2. Make sure your child or teen or young adult gets enough sleep. Burning the midnight oil can seem a good plan for older children the night before the exam, but it will leave them feeling shattered the next day. If getting to sleep is a problem, look at sleep hygiene in the same way you would take care of your own – no screens an hour before bed, Epsom salts bath, a little light reading before bed, and one thing that works really well for my teens is the sleep stories on the calm app. You can use the link to get 30 days to try all the features of the app to see if it works for you. You might also try calming teas like ‘night-time’ blends featuring chamomile, lavender and valerian.

3. Encourage them to take time to rest, doing something they love to do to empty the stress bucket. Similarly, encourage exercise, which can be a great way to lift the spirits and boost energy levels. We’re not talking about intense exercise, which can add extra stress to the body, but moving more generally in a way that feels good.

4. Keep enough healthy foods in the house so they don’t have to pick at sugar or junk foods, which spike blood sugar levels and ultimately lead to a crash in energy later in the day.

5. A diet that balances blood sugar levels is one of the best ways you can help them keep calm and healthy in exam season. Base meals around a good source of protein like poultry, meat, fish, eggs, tofu and other plant-based sources like chickpeas, lentils and beans.

6. Encourage eating plenty of omega 3-rich foods, as these are the building blocks of steroid hormones like the stress hormone cortisol. Find them in walnuts, chia and flaxseeds, and oily fish like salmon, fresh tuna, trout, sardines and mackerel.

7. Older children should watch how much caffeine they drink, from colas and coffees to energy drinks. These can interfere with sleep, leaving them scrambling for energy the next day, resulting in eating more sugar and drinking more caffeinated drinks, and a vicious circle gets created.

8. On exam day, make sure they have a good breakfast. Porridge or overnight oats with berries, nuts and seeds wins ahead of any cereal for releasing energy slowly and keeping them feeling fuller for longer. Or eggs on wholemeal toast. The absolute favourite in my house is banana pancakes (I have included a link to this recipe).

9. Encourage ‘happy tummy foods’ like probiotic yoghurt and kefir. During periods of stress, you might also consider a probiotic yoghurt to strengthen the gut.

10. A healthy gut also relies on a variety of different plant-based foods – all the different good gut bugs like something different for dinner. That means plenty of fruits and veggies, pulses, nuts and seeds. Some offspring are compliant when it comes to eating their veggies, but others might need more persuasion. Consider hiding extra veggies, even for older kids, in their favourites if they aren’t so keen. It’s amazing how easy it is to add peppers, carrots and mushrooms cut up very small into a Bolognese or cottage pie!

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