A Message to Students in the Thick of Exams …

A Message to Students in Their Final Year of School

We’re behind you, cheering you on to the finish line. You might be feeling stressed, overwhelmed, confused and so damn tired – we understand that, but keep going. Give it everything you’ve got – you’re nearly there – and know that whatever happens next, you’ve got what it takes for an amazing life. Your final grades won’t change that. 

During the next few weeks, remember that nothing that happens now has to determine what happens next. The potential in you is breathtaking, whether you’ve realised it yet or not. There will be choices, twists and turns in your path, and a lot of that path won’t be anything like you imagined. That’s one of the beautiful things about life. Sometimes things will work out exactly as you thought, and sometimes things will be different. It’s in the unexpected that the magic happens so take notice of your disappointments – they are often opportunities, disguised as something else. 

As you sit down to your exams you owe it to yourself to work hard and do your best, but know that the results won’t be a measure of you. There is no exam, block of exams, or assessment that will even come close to showing what you are capable of, or the life that’s waiting for you.

Exams will test your memory and your understanding of a particular concept, not your intelligence. They’ll show you what you are capable of during one particular hour of one particular day in one particular subject. It might be a subject that lights up your potential, or it might not.   

Education is powerful, but some of the most powerful things your time at school would have given you won’t be found on the periodic table or between the dog-eared pages of a maths book. Your education given you the capacity to have a voice and a presence – whether that’s through the way you use words, the way you create, the way you play sport or perform – or maybe it’s something else. It’s shown you that setbacks are temporary, disappointment doesn’t last and enough courage can lift you out of anywhere. It’s given you opportunities to flourish your resilience and your wisdom about the way the world works. It’s shown you a lot – a lot – about people, and given you insight that can only come from experiencing good ones and not so good ones. It’s taught you about the relationships to seek out and the ones to steer clear of – you’ll come across plenty of both. 

Hopefully, above all else, it’s taught you that you can learn anything and do anything when you put in the effort.

You may not have found whatever it is that ignites you yet. For you, that might be yet to come. Know that in you is everything you need to set the world on fire. Whether you realise it or not, it’s there – I promise you.

It’s important to work hard and give it everything you’ve got, but know that there are so many more things about you that will determine the life you have. Most of the things, if not all of the things that will make you successful, happy and give you a wonderful life will not be measured by the exams you’re about to take. 

They can’t test the person you are. They can’t test the way people you haven’t met yet will want to know you, love you, have you as part of their team or leading it. They can’t test your creativity, your courage, your wisdom, your resilience or your intelligence. You have the potential for greatness – whatever that looks like for you. Don’t let a grade tell you otherwise. Here’s why …

Your brain is going through a growth spurt – a massive one. It’s been on fire since you were about 12 and it will keep going until you’re about 24, so you’re only halfway through. You might not have yet discovered some of the things you’ll be good at. Your brain is hungry to learn and the exciting thing is that you’re about to enter a stage of your life where you get to decide what to feed it. You get to decide what to learn, what to excel at, where to put your time and energy. 

Right now, and for about the next 6 years, your brain is primed to learn, grow, strengthen and help you become whatever you want to be. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is yet. There’s time for that. In the meantime, be open to new things – new people, new places, new experiences, new adventures, new ideas and see which ones feel right. Everybody has it in them to be great at something. Don’t let a test, an assessment, a person, a mistake or a bad grade tell you anything different. 

You have incredible power to open all sorts of doors and shape the life you want. This power is yours and nobody can take it from you. It’s yours regardless of the marks you get. You can’t even know the doors you’ll open, and you’ll find the way to open them whether you get the grades you want or not.  You don’t have to have it all figured out yet. 

Your path will be crooked, unexpected and beautiful, which is exactly the way it should be. Don’t let any of the bends or detours change your belief in your own potential, or the wonderful depth and richness of you.

Know that we’re behind you all the way.

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8 Comments

Audrey

Well written words
Such an inspiration for a young person facing his final exams
Thanks

Reply
Miracle Jones

This is great exactly what i was looking for my high school senior friend.Thank’s a lot.

Reply
Eithne

Karen every word you write is amazing. I’d say my friends think I’m on commission for you!! I love how optimistic, gentle, and respectful towards young people your writing is. Your way of framing anxiety in a positive and accepting light has been very helpful in our family. I recommend you to SO many people. Looking forward to your book when it comes. It’ll be a bestseller here in Ireland anyway if I have my way! But to be honest I’m sure it’ll be a bestseller regardless.
Best wishes.

Reply
Bonnie

This is beautiful. I can’t wait to share this with my son! This is just what he needs during this crazy time of college and scholarship applications, essays, campus tours and standardized tests. This time can be difficult for anyone but especially for someone with anxiety, panic and depression. Thank you for the words that convey exactly what I feel.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. I hope it brings your son some comfort. I wish him all the very best with his exams and assessments. If only they all knew how amazing they are!

Reply
Denise

Beautifully said, thoughtfully written and exactly the words to share with my own year 12 daughter. Thank you Hey Sigmund!

Reply

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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