Exam stress and failure

How do you help your child cope with exam anxiety and not getting the results they would like? We offer some advice and tips.

Parents play a vital role in helping students to maintain a positive mental outlook in the run-up, during and after exams are over and the results are in. Here are some ways that you can help.

In our 2021 Parent Voice Report, parents told us that 41% of children have experienced stress relating to homework and 35% have exams-related stress, so you are not alone if your child is also feeling the pressure of schoolwork. Many parents were also concerned that the school’s high expectations were putting pressure on their child (53%).

Expectations can help us learn to strive for things and therefore help children work to reach their full potential. However, expectations that are set too high can have a negative effect and cause pressure when they feel unrealistic, inflexible or inadequately supported. 

As parents, we can play a big role in helping our children to maintain a positive outlook on their schoolwork by supporting them at home.

How you can help 

If you feel your child is under too much pressure from schoolwork or exams, here’s how you can help:

Be organised

A consistent routine at home can help everyone feel at ease when life gets stressful. Being organised yourself will help, but encourage your child to take control and organise their own things too — organising their own time can help children feel more in control and more able to handle pressure. If they’re feeling pressure from the amount or revision or type of schoolwork they’ve been set, work together to make a plan to tackle it, remembering to set aside time to relax!

Encourage a good balance

Make sure time at home with your child is well balanced, allowing for time to socialise, relax, have fun, do homework or revision, eat regular meals and get enough sleep. No matter how busy things are it’s important to recharge your batteries. Regular exercise and hobbies are a great stress reliever too. All of this contributes to good health and wellbeing.

No pressure

Making excessive demands of your child is unhelpful. Whatever their circumstances, young people generally care about their futures and want to do well at school and beyond. You’ll often find they put enough pressure on themselves, without the need for anyone else to add to it.

Take time to listen

Showing an interest in their revision or school work is important. As well as offering a place or time to talk things through. By listening to your child’s worries and respecting their feelings, they may feel relieved to have released some of their fears. Be positive with them (even if they’re not feeling that way), and let them know they can talk about it at any time.

Keep it real

Don’t waste time on ought to’ and should’. Help your child plan a realistic revision timetable (not just one that reflects the amount of revision they feel they ought to be doing) and encourage them to ignore what their friends are (or appear to be) doing. Your child’s revision should be all about their own needs.

Recognise stress triggers

We all experience stress differently so the ability to recognise your own signs of stress is really important. It helps you anticipate problems, be more prepared and think of ways to help, even when those feelings can’t be avoided. Helping your child to understand this can help them cope with stressful situations. Try asking them to write down their triggers and reflect on things that may be contributing to stress.

Put yourself in their shoes

It’s not always easy to remember how you felt when you were at school, but trying to empathise with your child’s situation can help you understand what they might need, and help them feel listened to and supported. This case study from a parent talks about how studying maths with her son brought understanding of the pressures he was under at school.

Talk to the school

Having a good relationship with the school (or at least knowing the best way to start a conversation with them) really helps when it comes to addressing any problems head on. With joined-up help from both home and school your child will feel listened to and supported.

If you think the school may be putting too much pressure on your child it’s okay to let them know. Get in touch and explain you’d like to talk through your concerns. The first point of contact will usually be your child’s class teacher or form tutor. If you think it would be helpful, ask to speak to the SENCo or a member of the pastoral care team as well – your child’s teacher may suggest this anyway.

To find the best solution it helps to be clear about what your concerns are so make a list, keep a diary or ask your child to write a letter so it’s in their words. Parents’ evenings are another great opportunity to have a constructive discussion about the work or any feelings around it. Have a look at our information on how to make the most of parents’ evenings. But if you’re worried, don’t feel you have to wait until then.

But remember you know your child best. Some children will need help to create revision timetables, others will appreciate support sorting out their notes, whilst others will want regular snacks and drinks but no other help. Trust your instinct and take your lead from your child.


At exam time, conversations often turn to how parents motivate their children to work hard and do their best. Whatever your child’s age, it’s a topic that really divides, with some parents and experts fully advocating rewards and others very much against them.

There are both pros and cons to rewarding and incentivising. To help you through this parenting challenge, here are some things you could consider:

You know your child best

The first thing to think about is whether your child actually needs any additional motivation. Are they already interested, engaged and working well to achieve their best? If so, then maybe it’s just some extra recognition of their hard work that’s needed. But if perhaps they don’t yet have that motivation, and could do with a bit of a helping hand to develop some good habits, an extra incentive or reward may be just what’s needed.

Don’t put yourself under pressure

If your child is embarking on their GCSEs or A Levels, don’t be too surprised if you hear stories about friends whose parents are giving them money if they achieve certain grades, or a specific gift for doing well. Try not to get sucked into a keeping up with the Jones’ type conversation (chances are they’re exaggerating anyway) and discuss a reward or incentive that will work for your family.

When to reward

Given what you know about your child, would it be more motivating for them to receive smaller rewards as they go along to show them their effort is recognised? Or are they more likely to respond to and be driven by an end goal’ (beyond the success they get from their results and the feeling of achieving)? Consider also what you are rewarding them for – what is success for your child? Is it a specific result, commitment to working hard, or setting out to achieve something new. Bear in mind also that rewards can be ineffective when you are simply rewarding for achievements they should be doing anyway.

Setting a precedent

For those with more than one child consider how you can fairly reward all children when the time comes, in a way that meets each of their needs, while also being fair’. Any rewards you set up may well be the start of a family tradition so bear this in mind when you are making plans – what expectations you are setting for the future? A celebratory family meal may be a great way to mark family wide achievements, while expensive gifts are harder to repeat. Not only is cost a factor, you don’t want to find yourself held to ransom at a later date!

Can you over reward?

Rewards don’t need to be expensive lavish gifts, more intangible rewards can be equally as effective. Depending on your child’s age some examples include — family time, a favourite meal, a trip out for ice cream, a new book, a later bed time etc. Try to go for as little reward as possible to get the results you need!

Make it count

Asking your child to come up with their reward (perhaps from a pre-agreed list) will probably make it more effective. Stick to an agreed plan. If you are using it for motivation, make sure your child knows what the reward is for and what they need to do to get it.

What to do if exam results don’t go to plan 

Getting exam results is a milestone moment in any household, and the weight of expectation can make everyone feel that it’s the be-all-and-end-all. Whether they do better than expected, meet their target grades or don’t achieve the hoped-for results, it’s worth remembering that, although education is important and it’s satisfying to see hard work rewarded, there are options open to everybody regardless of the outcome. What may be considered failure’ may just be a need to calmly reassess the future.

  1. Perspective. It’s very important to remember that it’s not the end of the world. Even though it may feel like it for your child. There will be other options. They are at the start of their lives, with so many doors still open to them.
  2. Be calm. So there is a need for you to stay as calm and positive as possible, particularly in the initial aftermath when emotions will be running high. Your child may feel a sense of failure if their results are not as good as they would have hoped, so now more than ever they will need to hear that they are loved and everything is going to be ok.
  3. Plan B. Being prepared for different outcomes, and knowing what the options are is also very useful. Do your own research on alternative subjects or courses your child may happily study, or sixth forms and colleges they might consider applying for. However, keep in mind it’s their future, not yours, so don’t push them unless you’re sure it’s towards something they want to do.
  4. Keep in touch. Make sure you know who to call at the school for advice or support. If your child had a place at college conditional on results, have a contact number to hand — you can often negotiate on a lower grade. 
The UCAS exam results helpline is for parents as well as teens, offering careers advice and support. Call them on 0371 468 0468 or visit their website for expert guidance.