As the writer of this article, I am stepping into an uncomfortable zone and I feel a degree of stress, as my intention emanates from my overwhelming responsibility to assist the High School students in my care, not from a desire to upset parents.
With over three decades of experience working with students and parents I have definitely seen a dramatic increase in student and parental anxiety, particularly in the last five years. I am becoming increasingly concerned by the levels of stress some of our students are experiencing and their inability to deal and cope with everyday life in a school.
I truly believe that parents are the key to reducing these levels of stress.
Putting exam stress into perspective
In the High School, over the past few weeks, our Years 7-10 students have just completed their first exam blocks for the year, and the Years 11 and 12 students have been completing a variety of assessments to conclude Term 2. As you can imagine, with all of these different exams and assessments, there has been an increase in student anxiety. As a result, we have been working very closely with the students on exam and assessment preparation strategies to alleviate some of their anxiety.
It has also been really important for us to put the exams into perspective for the students and explain to the students that stress is a very normal and healthy part of life. It is very normal to feel stressed before an exam. All humans experience stress at different times during their lives and learning to cope with stress and anxiety is important in being able to lead a normal, healthy life.
One of the greatest benefits of re-introducing exam blocks for the Years 7 to 10 students is that the students learn to manage their exam stress in the junior years so that they will hopefully develop coping strategies before they start Years 11 and 12.
Parents play a key role in either alleviating or contributing to student stress and anxiety, particularly in relation to student exams and assessments. To be very honest, I am concerned that parental anxiety about exams is being transferred to children, as some parents are overly invested in their children. After one of the recent Maths exams, I noticed one of the students use their phone as soon as they left the exam. I approached the student and asked why they needed to use their phone at this time, and I was told by the student that they had been instructed by their parent to ring them as soon as the Maths exam was completed to tell the parent how they had gone in the exam, as the parent couldn’t wait until the end of the day. I really felt sorry for this student as it was obvious that there was much parental anxiety about the Maths exam.
I suspect that the increasing anxiety levels we are witnessing with students is directly linked to increasing parental anxiety. In recent years, we have seen that parents are far more involved in their children’s lives than ever before, but this is not necessarily healthy for children.
Increasingly, we see parents attempt to control and manage any situations which may cause their children stress, and this is having a detrimental impact on their children’s ability to deal with anxiety. We have seen the evolution of terms such as ‘helicopter parent’, ‘tiger parent’, ‘lawn mower parent’ and now ‘bulldozer parent’. Initially, we saw ‘helicopter parents’ who watched over everything their children did but this has rapidly evolved into the ‘bulldozer parent’ who deliberately bulldozes any issues which their child may have to face. The result is highly anxious children who are not given the opportunity to develop coping skills and mechanisms for dealing with everyday stressors. Although the intentions of these type of parents comes from a place of love and support for their child; unfortunately, many of these parents do not see the damage they are causing their children.
As parents, we need to accept that life at many times is uncomfortable, and it can be stressful, and the best way to future-proof our children is to allow them to experience these stressful situations for themselves and to develop coping mechanisms. We need to take a step back, to not become involved ourselves, to resist the temptation to remove the stress-creating situations our children are facing, and to allow our children to cope with the situations themselves. This is certainly not an easy thing to do but it is absolutely necessary if we want our children to grow into well-balanced and healthy adults.
Fears for the future
I fear that if we don’t see a change in the way that we deal with student stress and anxiety, we will be raising a generation of children who won’t be able to cope with life when it becomes uncomfortable, children who will be too afraid to step outside their comfort zone to attempt new things, children who haven’t developed any coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, children who can’t complete an exam because of fear of failure, children who are paralysed with fear, and a generation of young adults who won’t cope in the workplace.
Acknowledging the awareness that we need to keep our children safe in a digital world, as parents I feel that we need to take a leaf out of our own parents’ parenting book and, as our children grow older and gain our trust and more independence, we take a step back and stay connected with them without knowing every detail of their lives. We need to give them the tools to be able to stand on their own two feet without us.
I feel that if I don’t express my concerns then the situation will only get worse, therefore, I implore you all, as parents, to reflect on how you might contribute to your child’s stress and anxiety and what you may need to change in the way you are currently parenting. Be truly reflective and ask yourself if you are currently a ‘helicopter parent’, ‘tiger parent’, ‘lawn mower parent’ or a ‘bulldozer parent’.
We all need to accept that life will be uncomfortable at times for all of us, including our children, and we need to be able develop strategies so that we can live with this discomfort. We need to teach our children how to cope with stress and anxiety, as developing independent and resilient children who can cope without us should be our primary goal as parents.
There are many resources, short courses, and workshops available for parents, that give excellent information about how to help children navigate the world in a way that will set them up for success. Our school psychologists are always available to give advice and recommend the best resources for you and your family. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to Dee Fittinghoff or Irit Bennissan in High School, or to Jo Jacobson in Primary School.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Hemphill is the Head of High School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.