Barbara's blog: You’ve Got This
By the time you read this blog, Son will have started his GCSEs, the culmination of three sets of mocks over the past year, endless revision sessions – for the students and the parents! - and email exchanges with teachers. It’s been a merry-go-round of activity, but all dizziness and no fun.
Son is 15 years old. He is funny, clever, articulate and stubborn. He is also very hard to motivate. He has suffered with anxiety since primary school and although it now thankfully seems to be easing, it has developed in him an acute sense of self which makes him particularly in touch with his feelings. My approach to supporting Son with exams has had to adapt to suit both the lack of discipline and his hyper response to stress which makes him liable to anxiety relapses. It’s a delicate balance to strike and requires constant creativity to tap into the mood of the moment. Urgh. Is life never easy?
I mentioned in a previous blog that my upbringing was very different from that of my children. Mum was on her own and she was laser focused on ensuring I capitalised on my privilege to be able to access education and succeeded in life, no matter the toll to our relationship or my mental wellbeing. Although the experience was harrowing at the time, I learnt a lot about what not to do to.
There is plentiful literature on how to support teenagers through exam season, going from the obvious to the utterly ridiculous, which makes me wonder if the author has tested the suggestions on an actual young person. For example, ensuring Son eats a healthy diet and sleeps enough sounds sensible, but it is not uncommon in our family for me to have to make two different meals to cater for everybody’s likes and dislikes. And whilst I do my best to ensure the food is healthy, I am not a magician. I’d rather dish up a health score of 6/10 which gets eaten (quesadilla with chicken, tomato and mozzarella anyone?), than a 9/10 that gets pushed around the plate.
As for sleep, that is the holy grail. Son rarely goes to bed before 11:00pm and then listens to a podcast to calm his monkey mind and help him drift off, which realistically doesn’t happen until nearer to midnight. I have talked to him about the benefits of sleep to body and brain. He tells me he finds solace in the dead of night, knowing nobody will ask anything of him. That time is truly his. Man is an island after all.
I wanted to help Son throughout exam season, so I ditched the traditional advice and focused on what we could change in the short-term for maximum impact.
Son and I designed a contract of agreement to address the lack of motivation and instil some method into exam prep. The contract simply set out what would be required over a week, such as daily revision sessions, completion of homework on time and evidence that the above have been carried out to a high standard. A small payment on a Friday provided the financial incentive. A ‘one strike and you are out’ clause meant that any lateness or detentions resulted in a missed payment for that week. The contract was put in place in early Spring and has so far born fruit, as it is clear about what needs to be done and the consequences of not doing it.
Son started joining me on my daily walks with Boomer, our dog. We are fortunate to live a stone’s throw from stunning countryside which provides respite from the stresses of the day. Boomer keeps us in the moment.
I parked my agenda and let conversation flow wherever it took us, rather than steer it towards topics that I wanted to discuss but that would cause anxiety (exams, college, careers…). And inevitably, not being under pressure to talk about these topics, meant Son actually talked about them, in his own terms.
The list is a mixture of changes to our routine, behavioural shifts and practical measures. It is imperfect, bespoke to our situation and designed to address Son’s specific needs. But it means I can help in a way that is practical and that I can see bringing some results, rather than flay about trying to deliver the impossible.
Son seems to be coping through the exams and survival is enough. He is honest about his mixed feelings: leaving school means he won’t have to study subjects that he is not interested in, but it also means he won’t have the spontaneous interactions with his friends that make his day fun. The end of an era is upon him, but here’s to a new beginning.
Good luck to all the kids taking their GCSEs!
Barbara works for the aviation regulator and lives a stone’s throw from the South Downs with her 17 year old creative daughter, 15 year old ingenious son and supportive husband.