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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9 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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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