Taking Time to Talk And Listen

24th March 2017

As summer exams loom for teenagers all over the country, and revision gets under way in earnest over the Easter holidays, Lisa Botwright offers some common-sense advice for stressed-out parents...

There’s a picture at home, of me in my graduation robes, proudly beaming into the camera. I thought that exams and revision were far behind me. How naive. Two decades and two children later, I’m all too aware that this wasn’t the case. For, as well learning to negotiate all the dramatic hormonal fluctuations of family life with teenagers, I’m now, like so many other parents and guardians, faced with the H-bomb that is GCSEs. We will arguably have just as much emotional investment in these exams – we’ll still have the stress and the sleepless nights, but this time around there’s nothing we can do to shape the outcome. Or is there? We can’t sit their exams for them, certainly, or revise for them. We have to calmly take a step back, and allow them to shape their own destiny. But exactly how far back should we step? The messages are mixed. Help them too much and we’re ‘helicopter’ or ‘snow-plough’ parents; if we’re too unsupportive, we’ll face accusations from an over-tired teen of not caring enough.

“I think it’s all about parents helping their children to stick to a sensible routine, good sleeping habits etc,” reassures Alex Wilson, Head of North London Collegiate, an independent girls’ school in Edgware. “Just be there for them, supporting them. Not judging if things go badly, or making them feel they’ve let their parents down. Just be there to pick up any pieces and jolly along as needed.”

Helen Wilson, Assistant Head of co-educational, independent Aldenham School in Elstree, echoes this. “Offer unconditional love whatever happens” she says, adding that “with perfectionist children this is crucial.” While some youngsters may need coaxing away from their studies, though, how can we help to motivate the ‘procrastinating child’? “Parenting is all about being one step ahead of your child; knowing your child and pre-empting any issues,” she explains. “If your child wants to tidy their room instead of studying, don’t nag… offer to help them; work alongside them and allow them to talk. Often there’s a fear of failure.”

This is great advice, since teens often misinterpret parents’ concerned questioning as confrontational. Try and find an activity you can do together, so that you can check-in, but in a natural and gentle way. (With my sporty daughter, I know that it definitely won’t be about tidying her room… I may just have to pull on a pair of trainers! All in a good cause…) “Don’t make any wholesale changes close to exams though,” cautions Helen Wilson, “there are a lot of potential problems with this.”

As Alex Wilson suggests, our teens are not so very different from our toddlers who craved routine. A work-relax-eat-sleep balance is crucial. A regular family dinner time is not always compatible with modern life, with pressures on time from after school activities and parents’ long working hours, but it’s another way of keeping the lines of communication open and ensuring your child is eating properly.

Sleep is critical too, for allowing the brain to process all the information it will (hopefully) be soaking up, but bedtime can be a cause of extra friction, with most teens’ addiction to staying connected. “Have the phone conversation early,” warns Helen Wilson. “It’s not a battle you want to start at this [sensitive] time.” As a working mum, she shares with me her own routine of the whole family putting their electronic devices in the kitchen at 10pm every night.

The difference between now and when our teens were little is that they will want to be involved in negotiating their daily routine. “It’s important to give them ownership of their time,” says Helen Wilson. However, as parents, we can offer them guidelines and help them plan their time effectively.

I ask Angela Appleby, Assistant Headteacher of Haydon School, a mixed academy in Pinner, how far we should give youngsters autonomy over their work schedule. “Parents should absolutely sit down and work out a timetable,” she answers, “but it’s important to be realistic.” Children should be encouraged to work in pockets of time; Angela Appleby suggests thirty minutes stretches.

Parents should also discuss with their offspring how they will use the time allocated for revision. This might seem obvious, but check that they don’t equate revision with simply reading through their notes. “Reading alone is the least effective way to revise,” continues Angela, explaining that students need to actively engage with their subject. “Read with a pen or a highlighter, take notes, use mindmaps. Then, towards the end of the thirty minutes, write out some questions based on what they’ve learned. After a break, see if they can answer those questions. This is called ‘spaced’ revision.”

Psychologist Dr Martijn van der Spoel gives regular talks to both students and parents about effective learning and tells children that rather than reading it, they should “sing it, write it, say it with rhythm, act it!” He explains that the brain is like a tree, constantly evolving as it makes and strengthens connections. Parents can help to reinforce these by discussing with their child what they’ve learned. “Children need to find ways to explain things in their own words,” van der Spoel says. He’s also a big fan of learning through writing questions on cue cards, and children testing themselves little and often. “If you make piles of memory cards you can answer and those you can’t; and you practise often enough, you’ll see the ‘yes’ pile getting bigger, which is very satisfying.”

For teens to connect positively with what they’re doing, Spoel highlights the importance of the three Ps: point, pace and passion. It might be hard to muster up a passion for mathematical equations or the intricacies of English grammar; but if they’re working at a pace to suit them and they understand the point, then their motivation will be improved.

Angela Appleby suggests motivating your teen by chatting with them about their hopes for the future, getting them to “imagine results’ day and visualise what they’ll do with their success.” But be careful not to pressurise: their targets should be appropriate for their ability and aspirations – what they need to get into sixth form, or the apprenticeship they’re keen on. Plan something to look forward to – a family meal or day out as soon as the exams are over, rather than when the results come in, as this shows that you’re rewarding their effort, rather than just the end result. “On a practical level, make sure your child is properly equipped with the right stationery, and that you both know their exam timetable 100%.” She’s shocked at how many children fall needlessly at the last hurdle by turning up for a morning exam at one o’clock in the afternoon.

“And don’t forget to say how proud you are of them,” Angela stresses. “It can be a negative experience, continually berating your child if you feel they’re not revising enough.” In a suggestion that brings a lump to my throat, she suggests writing a really positive letter to your child and giving it to them the morning of the first exam. I do like this idea: something we can do to focus our own parental nerves that’s not too ‘helicopter’ and just the right amount of supportive...

See also our 'Top Ten Tips for Teens' feature

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