How Parents Can Support their Teenager During the HSC

With over 75,000 year 12 students preparing to sit their Higher School Certificate (HSC) exams in NSW, there are approximately 140,000 parents and carers standing in the sidelines doing their best to support their teenager during this time. How can you support your teenager during this challenging time?

There is no doubt that year 12 is likely to be one of the most challenging stages of your teenager’s life. On top of this, going through a pandemic and periods of online classes have added additional layers of pressures and challenges.  Parents are often going through this journey with their teenager as well, and they may also be feeling the pressure, though unsure of how they can best help their teenager. While we can’t sit the HSC for our teenagers, there are things we can do to reduce their pressures and help them achieve their full potential by supporting a healthy environment!

The following guide will cover the most important aspects of supporting your teenager throughout the HSC exam period.  Each area has practical suggestions that are endorsed by Educators and Mental health professionals.   

  1. Be positive and realistic

Give your teenager daily encouragement and positive affirming words. Using positive affirming communication and praising your teenager can go a long way to building their confidence and coping well during this time. What teenagers hear from a parent can be so powerful. You can do this by communicating that you are proud of them, how you can see they are doing their best, or that they are good at something they are studying.

We want our teenager to do their very best, but parents and carers need to also be realistic what this means. If a student has been steadily tracking at around 60-70% in their assessments this year, then it is not realistic to pressure them into achieving 90’s and 100’s. Although possible, it is probably unlikely this will happen. Unrealistic demands can end up having negative impacts on your teenager, such as stress, anxiety, procrastination, and not wanting to study. Instead, encouraging your teenager to do their personal best can reap the best outcome. This mindset has potential to promote their self-esteem and self-worth.

2. Keep it in perspective

This is a vital point– encourage your teen to keep perspective during this time.  It’s great to motivate them to give it their best shot, but if they don’t get the marks they want, it’s not the end of their future careers. These days, there are numerous pathways to success in life, and that includes, TAFE, apprenticeships, and pathways to University, college, and more.

Not every student is suited to go on to University or further education, but that’s not to say they’re not smart. There is a lot of evidence from neurobiology that indicate our brains are still developing well into our early twenties, and sometimes it takes a few years after school for people to work out what they really want to do with their lives.    

3. Provide a calm environment and ensure health eating

A stressed out teenager can lead to a chaotic household, especially in the lead-up to the final HSC exams. Allow your teenager a quiet space to study, and be mindful about the noise at home during these times. This might mean changing the family routine to accommodate the times they want to study, vacuuming a little later in the day or when they are not home, keeping the TV low and limiting social activities at home for other kids. If your household is busy and loud, you can brainstorm quieter places for your teenager to study, like the local library.

Ensure that your teenager is eating healthy food. There is a strong link between what we eat and how we feel.  Healthy meals, and healthy snacks such as fruit, and plenty of water, are important in times of heightened stress and to keep our wellbeing intact.  Even though there might be a tendency to eat sweets or other junk food during times of stress, it is important that mostly healthy food is consumed.

4. Assist them to create a schedule.

If your teenager has not already organised their time through a timetable or planner- now is the time to do so. Create a plan that includes the obvious- scheduled assessment days and times, even planned out time to study for each subject. Don’t forget to encourage your teenager to include rest breaks such as time for exercise and relaxation. Having a schedule can reduce stress, worry and anxiety, and it can help both you and your teen to feel more prepared for the exams. When you are aware of their schedule, you can help them to keep on track.  

5. Help them challenge their negative thinking

We can have a tendency to think negative thoughts, yet often the difference between managing stressful situations well or not, can depend on the way we think about those situations. Our thoughts influence how we feel and what we do. For example, if your teenager is thinking to themselves “It’s all too hard” about studying, this can potentially cause feelings of despair, and they may procrastinate by watching TV or going on TikTok. And when we feel down or stressed, we tend to think in unhelpful ways, creating a viscous cycle.

Pay attention if your teenager is falling into the negative talk trap. Help them challenge their thinking by asking them these questions:

  • What is the evidence for/against this thought?
  • What’s the worst outcome? What’s the best outcome?
  • That might be possible, but how realistic is it? 
  • What would you say to a good friend in this situation?
  • What else might happen instead? Are there other, positive ways of looking at this?

6. Allow them to teach you

By now, your teenager most probably has study notes or a textbook they are trying to memorise and understand. You can help them by being their ‘student’. Ask them to tell you about the plots in the novels they’ve studied, the key themes of their history units, some of the important legal issues facing our society or significant chemical processes. By giving them the opportunity to explain the concept to you out loud, students will retain more information and better still understand it. It’s a proven fact that reciting information and teaching it to someone is an important teaching and learning strategy.

7. Rest and balance is vital

It’s midnight and your exhausted teenager is sitting under a blanket of study notes, hunched over with bloodshot eyes. Although late night cramming sessions are sometimes unavoidable and some students prefer to study late into the night, it is best to study in the day when they’re likely to feel more alert. Encourage them to get enough rest! A good night’s sleep of 8-10hrs, as well as daytime power naps (20-30mins max) where possible, will help with your teenager’s attention, memory and learning.  

Also encouraging your teenager to get out of the house can take the pressure off, and enable them to refresh. Activities like going for a walk outside, playing a sport, going out for a milkshake with friends are still important for your teenager’s overall well-being. Sport and exercise can help with academic performance as well as keeping them healthy, physically and mentally through this taxing period of the year.  

8. Celebrate the small wins too

It doesn’t need to be a good exam mark or ranking to applaud your teen, instead it could be the completion of a core text study, or them keeping on track with their study routine. With so many demands and pressures placed on them this year, some positive motivation and encouragement can go a long way for their self-confidence and mind state. The HSC year is a journey and every success, big or small, should be celebrated.

9. Choose to let things go

With emotions heightened across the entire family and siblings possibly feeling left out from all the attention on the HSC, it’s time to go easy on everyone and everything, and that includes going easy on yourself and the never ending to-do list. If something isn’t really worth the stress of the argument, think about just letting it go for now. Accept that their room might not be immaculate, their manners might not be at the usual standard and their mood possibly more up and down than a swing in the park. Take a deep breath in the moment, be aware of your own emotions and where possible let it go. Remember- ‘this too shall pass’.

10.  Look out for any warning signs of mental health concerns

Look out for any signs that your teen might be feeling more than the expected pressures and anxieties of the HSC period. The following are mental health “Red Flags” parents should be alert for during and even after the HSC period:

  • Excessive sleeping, beyond usual teenage fatigue, which could indicate depression or other mental health concerns causing insomnia and anxiety
  • Low self-esteem and overly self-critical
  • Engaging in unhealthy and harmful coping strategies such as self-harming or substance misuse
  • Weight loss/or weight gain, loss of appetite, which could indicate issues with body image, food, self-esteem and possible early signs of an eating disorder. Drastic changes in appetite could also be signs and symptoms of depression 
  • Abandonment or loss of interest in favourite pastimes
  • Personality shifts and changes, such as aggressiveness and excess anger that are sharply out of character and could indicate signs of mental health difficulties
  • Unexpected and drastic decline in academic performance

11.  Look after yourself

As parents and carers, it’s important that you look after yourselves during this time – it’s very easy to let your own anxiety spiral out of control and then impact not only your teenager but your own mental and physical health. It’s important to remember you can’t save them from every unpleasant or challenging situation. Let them take responsibility for their own study, and don’t see it as a reflection of your parenting if, for whatever reason, they can’t buckle down. Monitor your own self-talk, avoid buying into those destructive HSC myths that this is the only pathway for a future, and take time for yourself – whether that be exercise, reading, listening to music, gardening or anything positive that fills your own cup up.

If you are concerned about the mental health of your teenager, please talk to a trusted professional. 2Connect offers free support services for a young people and their families in the St George or Sutherland region. Phone us on 95561769 or read how we can help here. Other support services are Parentline 1300 1300 52 or Kids Helpline 24hrs on 1800 55 1800 (or online), or chat at eheadspace.org.au