Stress is part of our lives. When we perceive the situation as beyond our control, or we are not adequately equipped to deal with a difficult situation or stressor, we deem it as stressful. The amount of control we perceive to have of the situation plays a part in determining whether we perceive the situation as stressful or otherwise.
A stressor is any stimulus that triggers bodily or mental tension. Some stressors can be motivating and it can be the impetus that drives a person to achieve. For example, a new responsibility as being the class chairman may become a motivating stressor for a child who relishes new challenges; whereas the new role may cause anxiety to another.
Identifying Symptoms of Stress in Our Children
Students face many stressors at school ranging from increased workload and tight deadlines to socio-emotional challenges among peers. When they become stressed by the amount of things they have to juggle, sometimes parents’ reminders to them about their responsibilities can be construed as nagging. While some children do not show they are affected by what their parents, peers or teachers have said to them, others would express their anxiety through various physical, emotional or behavioural changes. These are some of the many symptoms of stress I have come across in my sons as well as in the students whom I have taught:
- Stomach aches
- Decreased appetites or changes in eating habits
Emotional and Behavioural Symptoms:
- Withdrawal from family, school activities or leisure pursuits
- Frequent crying
- Frequent angry outbursts
- Aggressive behaviour
It is not difficult to see how, as parents, we want our children to excel academically so that they can secure a well-paying job and lead a comfortable life. It’s every parent’s dream to witness their child achieve success. However, I often have to take a step back and reflect on how I am going to help our children reach the dream- that end point or goal- that I’ve envisioned for them. The essential question would be: What is the motivating factor for them to reach their goals?
Open Communication & Emotional Validation
Honest communication is key to building trust in a relationship that will provide the emotional support during times of stress. I share with my sons about my feelings and how I view the situations involved. I state the facts of the case and why I feel the way I do. By listening to my sharings, they know that they are not alone, and the feelings they have are authentic. They, in turn, will share with me how they feel about their challenges and why they feel that way. The trust we build when we engage in honest communication is reinforced by how we validate one another’s emotions.
Emotional validation is the process of learning about, understanding and expressing acceptance of, another person’s emotional experience, even though we may not agree with their opinions. When my sons share with me how they feel stressed by the fact that they don’t have sufficient time to complete their mock exam papers in time for their exams, I listen to their woes and I tell them I know how it feels when it feels like time is slipping away (like they have no control over time). Then I would ask them questions that require them to reflect on what their weak subjects are; how much time they have allocated to each subject, bearing in mind they have to allocate more time to the weaker subjects; and I draw their attention to the amount of time they have spent on other activities apart from their revision. Then the discussion would develop into prioritising all their activities within a typical day. We listen and we validate each other’s emotions although we do sometimes agree to disagree.
Respect Their Viewpoint
Our perception of the stressor affects how we will feel about, and deal with, the situation. More often than not, after having listened to how I feel about the situation and the reasons why I feel that way, they are able to evaluate their assessment of the situation and, consequently, regulate their emotions. For example, if they have claimed that the amount of mock papers they have to complete is overwhelming, then maybe after some re-evaluation and prioritising their activities, they would realise that they could have over-reacted to the situation. They could have reduced the number of papers they will attempt for the subjects they are more confident in, and factor in specified brain breaks like checking their favourite game for 15 minutes. It helps them to work towards their short-term goal of being able to do something they enjoy during their brain break. For me, I would head out for a short jog. They see that there is more than one way to view the situation and that each person is entitled to his or her views. Thus, through honest sharing of feelings and perspectives, and by validating their emotions, my sons learn that I am also learning to cope with my stress and that there are positive ways to cope with them.
Modelling Positive Behaviours
Through my various sharings with my sons, they learn how to deal with challenges positively. They know that I had faced similar difficulties in similar situations- that I had faced the same stress when my examination period loomed near, and that I had learnt of positive ways to overcome and cope with stress. They listened wide-eyed when they learnt that I had thrived on last-minute preparations for assignments and exams. The stress it entailed gave me the adrenaline rush and the impetus to achieving my goals. Of course I would always qualify that every one is different and that each of them should find what works best for them. They are very much interested to learn that even adults have shortcomings, struggles and fears. It is reassuring for them to learn that no one is perfect; that everyone struggles with their challenges, and to achieve one’s goals, resiliency is important.
Expectations: The Process-Focus Mindset
“If grades are not everything, then why bother studying hard?”
My sons have asked me this question when I tell them I look at their effort, not at the product. My answer is simple: When you have to sit for an exam, would you want to make that 1.5 hours or 2 hours sitting in the exam hall worthwhile, or you wouldn’t mind squandering that period of time away not being able to answer the questions and, consequently, not do well? If you have to spend that amount of time anyway, would you not want to spend it well and worth the time? If your answer is “yes”, then whatever you do, you should do it to the best of your ability, otherwise wouldn’t it be a waste of your time? In my household, we value excellence over perfection in our work. When we put in our best effort in any piece of work that we do, we will be proud of our effort. And with the best effort put in, it must entail a high quality of work, which, in turn, will generate good results. When my sons receive good results from their best efforts, it reinforces the mindset that it is the amount of effort that they put in that will eventually reap the rewards. In the event that the best effort does not amount to the expected good results, then he knows that he has done his best and there will be no regrets. It is also a time to celebrate the effort because he deserves the affirmation for the hard work he has put in.
There’s Always a Lesson to Be Learnt
The results of the assessment is an excellent feedback which we make use of to learn from. It is the perfect opportunity to find out what exactly they need to learn from the mistakes they have made in the assessment, and hence bridge the knowledge gap. I will ask them to tell me the concepts they have not understood and which are the mistakes due to carelessness. They will seek to find out the answers to their questions through asking their subject teachers or through self-directed learning. Also, they will need to tell me what they will do, very specifically, about their carelessness. I am not abashed to admit to them that my old way of doing last-minute work in my younger days had not yielded the best results, although I had perceived, then, that I had put in my best effort. They hear my acknowledgement that it wasn’t the best way to go about the work, and things could have turned out differently if I had managed my time better (which it did when I embarked on my post-graduate studies). It is all about not repeating our mistakes.
We’re Not Alone
Exams are part and parcel of our children’s lives; similarly, stress is very much a part of our lives. Learning how to cope with exam stress, or any form of stress, is a crucial life skill that will serve our children well in their adulthood. Maintaining an honest and open communication with our children; respecting each other’s perspectives; and shifting one’s mindset from a product-focus paradigm to a process-focus one will help our children to acquire the essential skills that will stand them in good stead for the future. That would be the success parents want to witness in their children.
I hope my sharing of my experiences with exam stress has helped, in some ways, to find a solution to combat the stress our children feel. We do not walk alone and it is my sincere hope that every child is equipped with the essential life skills to navigate through life’s challenges. With the support of their parents, I believe they will emerge stronger and more confident.