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Hundreds of children counselled by Childline due to overwhelming exam stress

The number of children from Scotland contacting the NSPCC’s Childline service over exam stress has more than doubled in the space of a year. 

Counselling sessions for girls who gave their location as Scotland jumped from 53 in 2015-16 to 108 in 2016-17. Contacts from boys were less frequent but they also rose from just five in 2015-2016 to 20 last year. With some callers not giving their gender, the total number of counselling sessions delivered to children in Scotland rose from 106 to 150. 

The figures are part of thousands of contacts made to Childline across the UK in the past year as young people turn to the vital service for help as they struggle to cope with the pressure of exam stress.                                                        

UK figures reveal that Childline delivered 3,135 counselling sessions on exam stress in 2016/17 – a rise of 11% over two years. 

More than a fifth of these took place in May as pupils faced upcoming exams with many telling counsellors they were struggling with subjects, excessive workloads and feeling unprepared.

Children aged 12-15 were most likely to be counselled about exam stress but this year saw the biggest rise - up 21% on 2015/16 - amongst 16-18 year olds, many of whom will have been preparing for National exams and Highers as well as GCSEs and A-levels in England to determine university places. 

Worryingly young people are consistently telling counsellors exam stress can contribute to depression, anxiety, panic attacks, excessive crying, low self-esteem, self-harming and suicidal thoughts, or even make pre-existing mental health conditions worse.   

A Childline counsellor in the Glasgow base said: “I was contacted by a 15-year-old girl called Sam from Scotland a few times as she wanted to talk about a number of issues that were worrying her such as her appearance and fighting with her brother. 

“After a long chat Sam was able to identify that her exams were causing her stress.  She had been trying to tell her parents that she was worried about her exams and while they had tried to help her she was still overwhelmed with the amount of revision she had. 

“I listened to her and helped her to see that it was the exam stress which was behind her fighting with her brother. We talked about her future, career aspirations and she shared her passion about becoming a paediatric nurse and helping children. This reminded Sam why she was working so hard and she sounded more enthusiastic. We discussed study methods that suited her best and also talked about her coping methods.” 

One teenage boy who contacted Childline said: “I'm really feeling the pressure of exams, I've been having panic attacks and difficulty breathing. I'm so afraid of not getting the right grades and I'm stressed about the future. My life could turn out so differently depending on what I get.” 

Joanna Barrett, acting national head of NSPCC Scotland said: “Every year we hear from thousands of children who are struggling to cope with the pressure to succeed in exams. For some this can feel so insurmountable that it causes crippling anxiety and stress and in some cases contributes to mental health issues or even suicidal thoughts and feelings.

“Exams are important but worrying and panicking about them can be counterproductive, leaving young people unable to revise and prepare. It is vital that young people are supported by family, friends and teachers during the exam period to help them do the best they can. Childline is also here 24/7 for any young person needing confidential support and advice.” 

Dame Esther Rantzen, Founder and President of Childline said: “I am very distressed that so many young people are turning to Childline because they have nobody else to confide in safely when they are desperately anxious.  

“We need to recognise how stressful exams can be, and reassure our young people and support them through these tough times which I remember only too well in my life, and my children’s lives.”

The NSPCC has the following advice for young people taking exams:

  • Make sure you take regular breaks from revising and do some exercise
  • Go to bed at a reasonable time and try and get some sleep
  • Try to think positively – even if you don’t feel like it, a positive attitude will help you during your revision
  • Remember that everyone's different - try not to compare yourself to your friends

Advice for parents and carers to help ease exam stress:

  • Don’t place unnecessary pressure on your children to gain certain grades
  • Encourage children to take regular breaks, eat snacks and exercise
  • Help them revise by leaving them the space and time to do so
  • Be supportive and help alleviate their worries by talking to them

Advice for teachers:

  • Facilitate classroom discussions to get students talking about exam stress
  • Encourage students to take regular breaks from studying for exams
  • Encourage students to talk to you or other teachers about exam stress 

Childline has partnered with BBC Learning’s The Mind Set, the UK’s first national peer-to-peer coaching network for GCSE and National students, to create expert advice for young people taking exams. A series of videos dedicated to helping young people through exams are also available on Childline’s YouTube channel.

Children and young people can contact Childline for free, confidential support and advice, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk

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