Promoting Health and Wellbeing during the HSC: Quick tips for teens and parents

Year 12 can be one of the most stressful times for young people, resulting in clinical levels of anxiety and stress, and greatly impacting functioning across all domains of life. A survey of year 12 students by the UNSW School of Education showed that out of 722 students surveyed, 42% reported high-level anxiety symptoms, high enough to be of clinical concern. The main causes of pressure identified were workload (50%), expectations to perform (26%), and importance of exams (22%).

Where does this pressure and expectation come from?

Students identified themselves as the greatest source of pressure (44%), with family (35%) and the school or teachers (21%) as the other main sources. This pressure causes students to be irritable, agitated and nervous, as well as causing symptoms of nausea and fatigue. In some cases, this increases procrastination, and competitiveness with peers.

How do we ensure that young people prioritise self-care during year 12?

ADVICE FOR TEENS

ENSURE BALANCE. Ensure there is a balance of activities in your life. This may be more important during the HSC time than at any other. Keep up with friends, spend time in nature, keep up with Netball if that’s what you enjoy! Some teenagers even find that engaging in a day or two per week of part-time work to be a welcome and useful distraction. Don’t expect yourself to be studying 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a sure fire way to burn-out. 

MANAGE PROCRASTICATION. To manage procrastination, break your study time into smaller, manageable increments. Sometimes the task of having to tackle Maths, Science and Geography all at once can seem overwhelming; and avoidance so tempting. Try studying for 30-40 minutes at a time and then take a 10-15 minute break. Have a snack, engage in some breathing techniques, or go for a walk.

PLAN AHEAD. It doesn’t need to be too detailed, but plan how you intend to complete all the necessary work over the time you have. This type of schedule isn’t only useful for study planning, but reduces cognitive demand, and can reduce stress by making tasks more manageable. Procrastination if often impacted by level of motivation. Our motivation to complete a task can be increased when there is an incentive or reward, which can be helpful when the task of study becomes adverse. Why not try an end-of-day reward like watching a movie on Netflix, as well as an end-of-week reward, like spending time with a friend.

ENVIRONMENT IS THE KEY. Have a designated study space! Where possible, keep this separate from other spaces of the house like the living room where there may be lots of distractions, or your bed which should only stimulate sleep and relaxation. Create a space which promotes wellbeing and supports focus and attention. A clean and tidy study space can help with this.

CHALLENGE UNHELPFUL THOUGHTS. Our thinking patterns directly impact our mood and behaviour. However we may not always be aware of our unhelpful thinking patterns in times of stress. Below are some common unhelpful thoughts which may surface during the stressful exam period:

A fear of failure… “I should just give up now, I will never pass this exam”
All-or-nothing thinking… “Either I read this whole textbook today, or just give up on studying today”
Generalising… “Everyone else will do better than me”
Labelling… “I am stupid, worthless…”
Catastrophising… “If I don’t get the ATAR I want, it will be absolutely horrible”

Not only are these thoughts unhelpful, they are often unlikely scenarios that we often accept without question. When these thoughts come up, ask yourself, “what evidence is there that this is not true?”, and then try replacing it with a more helpfulthought. For example, “I have thought I would fail in the past, and it did not turn out to be true”, “there are lots of opportunities for me in the future if things don’t work out the way I hoped”.

NUTRITION & SLEEP. Teenagers require at least 9-10 hours of sleepeach night. Sleep helps us to consolidate information and promotes health and wellbeing. This is as important as ensuring you have covered all the content you need for that exam. Enjoy regular, healthy meals. What you feed your body, feeds your mind! Excess caffeine, alcohol or sugar can leave you feeling sluggish, and impact your sleep, as well as your mood.

To assess your current level of self-care, take this Self-Care Assessment: https://www.therapistaid.com/worksheets/self-care-assessment.pdf

ADVICE FOR PARENTS

SEEK SUPPORT. At this stressful time, what young people need most is gentle support and encouragement. Expect there to be a rollercoaster of emotions, moodiness (more than usual), and sometimes tears. At this time, parents need to strike a healthy balance between micro-managing their teens study habits, and being completely removed altogether.

Ask your teenager what they need during this time; more quiet in the house from siblings? More checking-in from mum? Less checking-in?
Your teenager needs relaxation and regular breaks. Expecting them to neglect their social or recreational interests does not support their wellbeing. And if your teen is expecting this of themselves, encourage them to take a walk, get a bite to eat with you, or spend time with friends.

For more tips, see Beyond Blue’s Surviving Year 12 Factsheet for Parents: http://resources.beyondblue.org.au/prism/file?token=BL/1292

And on a broader scale…

  • Schools and the adults in young people’s lives, need to be sending the message that although the HSC is important, there is no question that nothing is more important than the person's wellbeing, mental and physical health. 
  • Discuss different options for after year 12 with students, in the case that they do not achieve their desired ATAR. Promote these alternatives as just-as-good options for career or study.
  • Promote support amongst peers. Competitiveness can quickly become damaging and promote a sense of failure in students who are not performing better thantheir peers.
  • It is normal for students to feel stress during this time, and sometimes it can even be helpful.

Let’s focus on giving students the support and encouragement to develop the skills they need to manage stress. If a young person’s stress or worry is impacting their ability to function – whether it be academically or otherwise – they may need further support to help manage their mental health during this time.

If this is the case, and you may be concerned about your child, accessing psychological support can help! 

Written By: Ms Nadia Rizzi, psychologist at ACPC. Nadia is a registered psychologist who works frequently with teens, young people and their families. 
 

References:

https://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/ newsroom/opinion/study- confirms-hsc-exams-source-of- major-stress-to-adolescents/

https://education.arts.unsw. edu.au/newsroom/articles/ben- north-research/

https://education.nsw.gov.au/ public-schools/practical-help- for-parents-and-carers/help- with-homework/tests-exams/hsc- help/parents

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