Articles by Dr. Dubey on mental health.

Seven steps to help your child with exam stress.

Board and school/college final exams are around the corner. This is the time to prepare, to think and plan, to build your own and your child’s immunity to educational pressure and exam stress. We all want our children to be successful and happy, and it is high time we figured out how. Formulas often don’t work because each child is unique. Therefore, it is important to figure out what you and your child need to do to manage anxiety.

Watch out for anxiety-prone thinking:
Students who are keen on academics and want to excel in a given exam may sometimes go through intense anxiety. In fact, as exams approach, most students will feel anxious. Some anxiety is normal. Anxiety is what pushes us to work hard, focus on our goals and not become lazy or distracted. However, anxiety beyond a level is detrimental and affects performance negatively. Now, each person has a different threshold for anxiety. And this level is determined by each person’s unique biology or temperament and socialisation or learning from childhood. While we cannot change biology, it is the learning part that we can work on.

Anxiety is often triggered by the unknown, feeling that things are out of control, or focusing on outcomes that one fears. While most students who are well prepared usually feel confident and less anxious, some of these students may undergo intense anxiety. This happens if they indulge in unrealistic or erroneous thinking. Such children/teenagers may hold catastrophic beliefs around their results (e.g., coming second in an exam is the same as failure), have unrealistic/perfectionistic expectations, and their entire self worth is tied to their performance (e.g., have to top each exam, else I am not good enough). In order to prevent children and teenagers from becoming overly anxious, parents play a very important role by being realistic, and not reinforcing unfortunate beliefs. You can help a child who is highly anxious by discussing the worst case scenario so that there is a plan B in place and the unknown is not so scary.

Separate academic success from child’s worth
Another harmful tendency is to use academic performance as the only criteria for assessing a child’s worth. This is not only extremely damaging to the child but also to the society at large. There can only be a few “toppers” in a specific area, but there can be several “toppers” in many different areas, such as art, photography, music, dramatics, entrepreneurship, sports, etc. When we widen the possibilities of not only where success may lie but also what success means, success becomes more possible.

There are two problems that need to be addressed: wanting each child to be a “topper” as per set external standards (i.e., exam results); and, pushing each child to be that topper, whether the child is even remotely interested in it or not, and has the ability to do so or not. Parents can help children and teenagers build a stronger sense of self worth that is not tied so deeply to academic performance.There are many successful and happy people who have carved out a niche for themselves in an area after having been average students academically and doing different things until they found that one area which really excited them. We do not have to make the next generation go through the same long process and instead help them find their passion earlier in their lives.

Moderate self and child’s academic expectations:
Teenagers, especially in India, go through immense pressure and stress related to their educational pursuits. The pressure to excel is placed on them not only by parents but also by schools. In addition, while some children are quite self-driven and competitive by nature, their anxiety also stems from the desire to excel by the standards set by their peers.

Each child has his or her own personality, temperament, unique strengths, talents and abilities. While each child may be bright and capable in his or her own way, every child may not be interested in or suited to engaging in purely academic pursuits or becoming an engineer or doctor. It is important to assess where our child stands academically and whether his/her expectations as well as our expectations from his/her performance are realistic.

Do not impose own dreams/career choices on child
It is important to self reflect and make sure that as parents we are not imposing our own dreams and/or ambitions regarding academic/career choices on our children. Otherwise, we will be trying to put a square peg in a round hole – it will never fit. There are, unfortunately, scores of adults and young people who have been badgered into making educational and career choices they were not keen on and are not happy with. Quite a few of these teenagers and adults go through life struggling with low self esteem, anxiety and depression as they do not find what they do satisfying and are unable to put in their best efforts. In addition, everything they try to do is to somebody else’s standard, and that standard seems impossible to meet.

Help child discover areas of interests:
Exposure is the key to helping a teenager find his/her areas of interest. Once interested the teenager may develop enough discipline and motivation on his/her own to pursue their goals without parents needing to nag! Openly discussing the pros and cons of different career options and ideally having them speak to someone engaged in a career they are interested in, or visiting that person’s workplace, provides a more realistic picture. The idea, therefore, is not to leave teenagers to their own devices. It is important to be actively engaged in helping children discover for themselves their own interests and then making it clear that you expect them to put in their best efforts towards realizing their dreams. There is no substitute for hard work, no matter what field – arts, entertainment, business, medicine, etc.

Provide study tools and improve study habits:
Sometimes children perform at average or below average levels academically either due to a learning disability or due to being ill prepared because they do not have the study skills required. Often, the appropriate educational resources, including good teachers, are just not available. While universal good education should be a protected right, the reality is far from ideal.

Helping children and teenagers learn how to organise their time, to plan and make a study schedule, and to break big projects into small parts and tackle one part at a time is sometimes all that is required to alleviate their anxiety. In other situations, involving special educators, arranging for extra help, such as tutors, or sitting down with the child and helping them in areas where they need help can reduce the child’s anxiety and improve their academic performance.

Inculcate healthy lifestyle practices:
Parents often need to teach themselves and their children ways to calm themselves. For example, deep breathing, meditation techniques and positive thinking are very helpful, especially when one begins to feel anxious. In addition, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep and regular exercise are essential for helping the brain function at an optimal level. Engaging in leisure activities or hobbies is also a great antidote to stress. In very practical terms, for both you and your child, this might mean shutting off the wifi in the house at a set time each night, limiting screen time, connecting with each other and sharing a few laughs, and stepping out of the house to take a break, get some fresh air, and exercise.

It is important to pay attention and help your child now. Poor self esteem combined with unhelpful, unfortunate beliefs, high levels of anxiety, and pressure from parents or school to perform, is a deadly combination, which can lead to depression and/or extreme frustration and suicide. A life is too high a price to pay for someone else’s definition of success.


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