Teenagers & Exams: How to Help Stressed Teens?

End of school exams can be a stressful time for teenagers, their parents, and those who teach them. With Australian High School students beginning their final exams this week I thought it would be worth taking some time to explore the issue of exam related stress in teenagers

There is no shortage of articles and resources for parents and teenagers on how to reduce and manage exam related stress.  Many of these resources such as relaxation techniques, designing a study timetable, establishing daily routines that assist regular sleep patterns, and learning how control anxious thoughts are all valuable tools for teens facing exams.

However it is important to remember that the amount of stress, and drivers of exam related anxiety, differ greatly from student to student. Not every student will feel the same way about exams, therefore their levels and experience of exam related anxiety will differ.

It is no good trying to apply stress relieving strategies to a student who already has too little stress, or using motivational strategies on a teen who is already running themselves into the ground with effort.

This post is about helping parents / teachers consider the nature of stress different students experience.

To help your teenager it is important to understand their Stress Profile. A stress profile is a means of defining the nature and extent of stress in a particular student.  Here at Understanding Teenagers we have developed a simple tool adults can use to help them gauge the stress profile of a particular teenager. The full tool is too large to include in a post, but below is an introduction that will give you the idea (Please contact us if you would like more information about the tool).

Motivation & Ability

The basic assumption behind the student stress profile is the two key components that contribute to shaping a student’s anxiety levels in regards to exams are motivation and ability.

Motivation is about how much a students cares and the concern or importance a student places on the outcome of the exams. These motivations can be internal (personal desires / beliefs/ self concept) or external (expectations of others / competition / tertiary entrance requirements).

Ability is a measure of the student’s natural talent and opportunity to achieve in academic pursuits. Not everyone is born with the same academic ability, it is a basic fact of life we all come from different gene pools. However it is equally true that environment, not just genetics, effects a person’s ability to perform academically.  Students who have been raised in an environment where they were encouraged to value learning and equipped with skills and tools to assist in learning will have greater abilities than those who come from a less positive environment.

It is the relationship between these two factors that play a significant role in shaping the stress levels in relationship to exams. Their levels of stress will be shaped by their ability and their motivation combined.  A student desperate to get into medicine with only limited academic ability will experience different levels of anxiety than a student who is very bright but is yet undecided about their future goals.

Student Stress Profile

The matrix below gives a brief outline of the student stress profile.  Motivation and Ability are each shown on a separate axis and each form a continuum from low to high. Each person would score somewhere along each axis. The point at which these scores intersect determine the quadrant and profile type.

Student Stress Matrix

The descriptions of each profile below are general, obviously there will be variations within each profile based on the relevant extremities of the traits being measured. However the descriptions should give you a basic idea of the different types of students and what they need when it comes to exams and study.


The conscientious student is the one who has ability and is motivated to do well.

The biggest form of anxiety for this student is not letting themselves or others down by their performance.

Commonly these students are those who have developed a strong self concept around their abilities to perform well academically and / or have a lot invested in obtaining a certain career or professional status post school. Often these students will come from backgrounds that place high value on personal achievement.

Important messages to convey include:

  • We value you for who you are as a person not just your achievements
  • You are more than the sum of your success
  • Short term sacrifice for long term gain is good – but in moderation
  • It is okay to make mistakes, it’s how we learn (perfectionists are nearly always conscientious)
  • We are proud of your efforts
  • Make sure you have some fun / relax this week


The striving student is the one who is motivated but has limited ability or opportunity.

The biggest form of anxiety for this student is not doing well enough to achieve their goals in life.

Most commonly this student is aiming for a certain mark or grade to get into a particular course or profession.  This desire can stem from a long held fascination and desire with a particular vocation. They may have made a promise to themselves to attain a certain lifestyle or level of achievement in life, or attached their self worth to achieving certain levels of income or professional attainment.

Important messages to include convey:

  • These exams are not your only chance to achieve your goals in life
  • Exam grades are not a measure of your value as a person
  • Studying hard will not be wasted even if you fall short
  • Balance between work and rest is essential for best results
  • We are proud of how hard your effort and determination


The underachieving student is the one who has natural ability or lots of opportunity but has limited or very low motivation.

The biggest stress for these students is not missing out on all the opportunities to have a good time now, and/or trying to deflect the expectations of others (usually adults).

Commonly under – achieving students have yet to identify what it is they want to do with their lives.  They have no clear goals or ambitions for the future, are easily distracted, and primarily focused on enjoying and making the most of the present.  A significant percentage of these students will also be non-conformists who resent and oppose the expectations of authority figures and exhortations to conform.  For these students not caring about exams or study is an act of defiance or passive-aggression.

Important messages to convey:

  • You are responsible for your own decisions and the outcomes of those decisions
  • Doing well in exams gives you more will give you more choices in life
  • Relaxing and catching up with friends is okay – in moderation
  • Encourage discussion about the types of things they want out of life
  • Make study valuable in the present – attach privileges (access to car / phone / etc) to time spent studying


The resigned student is the one who is neither motivated nor blessed with natural ability or opportunity.

The most common form of stress for these students is not fitting in with their peers or community. Alternatively they may be avoiding a familiar scenario for them – they try and they fail and consequently stir up feelings of worthlessness, shame, and hopelessness.

Commonly these students come from backgrounds, or are surrounded by people, who do not value academic performance or professional attainment.  Other students in this category suffer from extremely low levels of confidence and self concept in academic areas. They often have internal messages constantly on replay (called scripts) which tell them there is no point trying because they will only fail.

Important messages to convey:

  • Actively encourage them if they show interest in certain pursuits
  • Use positive messages of appreciation when they attempt something (irrespective of result)
  • Help them set realistic goals and devise sensible strategies to achieve them
  • Making an effort is courageous and praiseworthy
  • Encourage friendships with peers who have a sense of purpose

Understanding how motivations and abilities impact on students can assist those around them provide the most appropriate support and encouragement during exams.

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