For thousands of UK students, the main summer exam period begins next week. Teachers are reporting a rise in student anxiety levels, seeing panic attacks, angry outbursts, self-harm, and disengagement. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that this year’s cohort is the first in three years to sit in-person GCSEs and A-levels. The unfamiliar experience of physically sitting in an exam hall with other students has created a whole new source of worry.
If you’re worried about your own teenager (or, indeed, if you are yourself a teenager), here are some of the signs to watch out for plus a list of tips on how to manage the situation.
Signs of struggling
Not sleeping properly
Thoughts like, ‘I’m going to fail,’ or ‘I have to do well or I won’t get into a good uni,’ can stop teenagers sleeping well. Watch out for tell-tale signs: do they look tired? Are they falling asleep in class, or at strange times of the day? Are they more irritable than usual?
Not eating properly
Are they skipping meals or, conversely, are they eating tons of junk food? Under-eating and overeating are both red flags. It might mean they’re feeling overwhelmed.
Lashing out or having meltdowns are signs they might be feeling the pressure. Teenagers are supposed to be moody, but a big difference in their mood during exam season could be a sign of burnout. They might be stressing over things they just don’t get or overworking because they’re worried they’re not good enough. Whatever the reason, there’s a good chance they’ll take it out on those around them.
Spending a lot of time alone
Teens often like to spend more time on their own but keeping to themselves more than usual might be a sign that they’re having a hard time. There are behaviours you can look out for: lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, or at their screens for hours at a time, losing interest in things they normally enjoy.
No interest in things they normally enjoy
Hobbies and interests are important for wellbeing. If a teenager is pulling away from the things they love – football practice or even just watching their favourite shows – it might be a sign they’re overworking.
How to help
Try to check in and chat regularly
It’s important to find out why your teen is working themselves so hard. Do they think they’re not good enough? Are they worried about what you think? Ask them, ‘What can I do to help?’ You might be surprised by how they open up. With lots of chats and encouragement, you can help them work out a more balanced relationship with their revision.
A revision timetable can help your teen relax, since they’ve scheduled their study time. To balance the day, get them to schedule fun as well as work – include things like, ‘trip to the cinema’, or ‘catch-up with friends’ in their timetable. Remind them that spending time away from revision actually helps their brain learn better.
Managing screen time
Screen time is not all bad – there are lots of helpful learning resourcesthat teenagers can use while they’re revising. But screens can have a negative effect on well-being, particularly by getting in the way of sleep. Encourage them to have a break from their screens for an hour or two before bed. If that’s just not possible, at least have them change the settings to night-time mode, so the blue lights are switched off.
Reach out if necessary
But everyone needs outside help sometimes. Here are a few good resources to tap into, as recommended by the NHS:
- Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
- Koothwhich delivers psychological support for teens
- Mental health apps: Catch It, Blueice, Chill Panda
Lack of sleep has a detrimental affect on our well-being. Sleep and mental health are closely related: living with a mental health condition can affect your sleep, and poor sleep can affect your mental health.
It’s a common problem – globally, around 1 in 3 adults suffers from insufficient or poor quality sleep. There’s no magic wand but a good sleep routine and environment should help.
Keep to a bedtime schedule
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This programmes the body to sleep better. Don’t be tempted to catch up on lost sleep during the day. Afternoon naps can interfere with night-time sleep. However, a short mid-day nap can boost memory, improve job performance, and lift the mood.
Going outside and being exposed to sunlight can really help you sleep. Sleep timing and quality are linked to your circadian rhythms and melatonin levels and daylight is the strongest environmental cue. If you can’t get outside, even indoor exposure to daylight is helpful.
Stimulants such ascaffeine, alcohol and nicotine all prevent your natural wind-down mechanisms from kicking in. Intense exercise, heavy meals and blue light from your device don’t help either. Turn your phone to night-time mode – better, put it down completely, if you can. Have a mug of warm milk, rather than another can of Coke. Try not to eat too late.
Wind down before bed
Winding down properly before falling asleep can improve the quality of your sleep. Participating in relaxing activities helps the brain re-focus and remain calm while planning the following day in advance can prevent the mind running over things to do. Try making a to-do list before bed, prepping tomorrow’s lunch or picking out your outfit for the morning.
Create a good environment
Your bed and your bedroom are key. You need support from a good mattress and pillow. A quiet and comfortable room that isn’t too hot. Consider thick or lined curtains if you’re light sensitive.