How To Support Your Children On Results Day & Beyond

As adults, we know exam results don’t always have to determine what comes next. That said, for a 16-year-old it can feel like the be-all and end-all – and as parents, it isn’t always clear how to properly support them through this stressful time. That’s why we went to two education and mental health experts to get some answers.
By Harriet Russell /

First, what are some of the signs your child might be feeling overly stressed about exam results?

“Stress is a natural response to this uncertainty and pressure, and it can be helpful. The stress response can improve oxygen flow to the brain, which can result in increased focus, energy, and awareness. However, some levels of stress can also be harmful: for example, if someone experiences a bout of extreme stress, or if someone experiences prolonged stress (also known as chronic stress). Some of the signs and symptoms of unhelpful stress to look out for in your child include tiredness, irritability or trouble focusing, headaches or frequent illness, expressing negative thoughts, withdrawing from regular activities such as socialising and changes in sleeping or eating patterns.” – Dr Lynne Green, Chief Clinical Officer at Kooth

Are there any good coping mechanisms parents & children can employ in the lead up to results day?

“Waiting for results day to arrive is a nerve-racking experience for any child or parent. One of the things you can do to help keep nerves at bay is keep busy. Plan some fun things to do with your child as a family or with their friends to keep their mind off their results. Enjoying the rest of the summer holidays and spending quality time with loved ones can build a buffer of positive emotions that help us manage underlying stress and anxiety.” Ruki Heritage, Director of Student Experience at The University of Bedfordshire

“Anxiety, even though normal, can become a problem when it persists and becomes so intense that it starts to affect daily functioning and has a ripple effect in other areas of our life. That’s why can be helpful to help children and young people learn techniques that help them manage anxiety. Some of these techniques include teaching them about anxiety; relaxation/breathing techniques to slow their body down; talking to them about their thoughts and fears about the outcome of their exams; helping them manage their fears of failure; and reassuring them that whatever the outcome, they would be okay. Other things that can be helpful include:

1. Use distraction techniques. This is about what works for them – music, mindful drawing, arts and crafts, games, tv programmes etc. Encouraging them to exercise and stay active, too.

2. Try journaling. Invite them to write their thoughts and feelings down and if they allow, having a conversation about it. If they do not, journaling can still be helpful. Self-help materials or books that talk about these experiences and demonstrate how other young people have managed such situations normalises the experience. They help them to understand that they are not alone. Teach them mantras like ‘the test is only a test it does not define me’.

3. Encourage them to try to talk about it. Let them know it’s okay ask for help or use other platforms available to talk about how they feel. If in doubt, speak to your GP.” Dr Lynne

How can parents best support children emotionally through this turbulent time?

“For me there are two main ways to go about this:

1. Ask, don’t assume. Every person responds to and experiences stress differently, and there is no-one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, some teens might need a good hug and someone to talk to, whereas others might need some space and flexibility with other responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to ask your child what support they would like. It’s also important to not assume that the stress they are feeling is down to exam results. While they may contribute, there can often be overriding factors making stress harder to handle. Make sure you take some time to ask how they are doing, allowing your child space to talk about whatever is on their mind, whether it’s exam results or not. Just knowing that you are there to listen and that there is a safe space to talk (whenever they are ready) can often help with breaking down stress in others.

2. Be their biggest supporter, not their coach. You understandably want to give your child the best chances and ensure they fulfil their potential. While this is great, it can often be easy to slip into the trap of telling your child how you think they should be preparing for exam results day. You can still be there to provide logistical support if they want it, such as providing lifts to the school to collect their results but try to practise allowing your child to be autonomous and independent. Research shows that parental pressure is a leading cause of stress around exam results season – it can make them feel much more overwhelmed. If you are worried about them, try to gently encourage them by enhancing their intrinsic motivation – talk to them about their goals, ask what they enjoy studying the most, and chat about why their exams are meaningful to them.” Dr Lynne

Be their biggest SUPPORTER, not their COACH – try to practise allowing your child to be AUTONOMOUS and INDEPENDENT.

What are some ways you can help them process the frustration or disappointment?

Openly discuss the emotions associated with things not going according to plan (sadness) and normalising the emotion. Try to resist the urge to save the young person but guide them through this period of distress because when things do not go according to plan, it can feel bad. But let them know how proud you are of them and normalise this experience as much as possible. It might be helpful for the young person to know that it is not the end of the world and that despite the pain, things like this happen. After a while, it might be helpful to suggest possible options they could take. Letting them know that you are available if they need to talk through things.” Dr Lynne

Is it worth coming up with a plan B? 

“Every parent will know that sometimes things just don’t go to plan. Even if you and your child are confident they will get the results they want, it’s always worth having a plan B. This doesn’t need to be a stressful process, but it’s worth getting ahead and chatting through some of the most important things to your child when picking a university. Do they want to be closer to home or do they have their heart set on living in a city? Is the type of course on offer the most important thing to them? If you outline the most important factors now, it will be easier to make the right decisions should things not go to plan on the day.” Ruki

“This can be a tricky subject to raise with some children. We don’t want our teenagers to think we don’t have confidence in them and what they can achieve. But in any area of life, it’s sensible to at least consider a Plan B. If we think back to how we felt at that age, it can be difficult to consider alternative options when results day is looming. So, it’s useful to help young people understand that there are always other possibilities no matter what results they get. Building up their resilience is something else we can encourage and an important life skill. For example, talking through with your teen how they’ve problem solved and ‘bounced back’ from experiences in the past can remind them of how resourceful they are, especially if this has led to new opportunities previously. Alongside your compassion and support this can help soften the blow if their results aren't what they wanted. And even if they are, life as an adult also means persisting through tough situations sometimes.” – Matt CEO of online parenting service Triple P

What might be some of the other back-up options that exist?

“If students don’t get into their first-choice university, there are a variety of options available to them. First, go through clearing. Clearing is the UCAS system that allows universities to fill vacant spaces on their courses. You should be primed to go through clearing if you’re determined to go university that year. If you want to go to your specific first choice university, it would make sense to re-sit exams the following academic year and ensure you get the right grades. Then there’s an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are a great way to get stuck in and begin to acquire vocational skills straight away. Cheaper than a university degree and easier to access, this is a great way to fast-track your career from the ground up. Finally, they could take a gap year. Backpacking through Thailand? The cliché exists because it’s a great way to reassess and reframe a young adult’s relationship to working life. It will allow them to gain valuable life experience and skills like independence.” Mya Medina, Senior Tutor Team Lead at GoStudent

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What are some alternatives for children who just don't perform academically – how can you help them think outside the box?

“There’s a plethora of options for students who have skill sets more suited to non-academic paths. Whether it’s travelling, starting their own business, or going straight into the working world – there is no ‘set path’ to success. I would encourage you to talk to your child about what they are passionate about, then think together on all the ways that they could get involved with that topic or industry. Could they volunteer? Could they intern? Is there a vocational course in that topic that they could explore?” Mya

What are some of the options open specifically to A Level students?

There are lots of options for students that don’t get the results they want, a popular alternative route to university is going through clearing. Clearing has a reputation as a rushed process where you make a big decision about your future in a hurry, but it doesn’t need to be like this. If your child thinks they may need to go through clearing, or even if they don’t, it’s worth getting your head around the process beforehand should you need to use the clearing route on the day. There are lots of brilliant resources to help you get clear on clearing, take a look at the hub on our website.” Ruki

Is it ever worth appealing a poor result?

“This really depends on a few key factors. Firstly, consider how close the result was to the higher-grade band. If you’re a couple of marks off a grade, then it’s likely worth a re-mark. If this is the case, then it takes an average of 15 calendar days for your results to be returned. To avoid losing your place at your chosen university – appeal to them by reaching out via phone call or email. In this case, you would explain you were a couple of marks off your entry requirement grade and ask if they would be willing to hold their place for you until the remarked grades are returned. If they won’t hold their place for you (which can happen for particularly competitive universities), remarking is still worth it. If the re-mark is returned with a higher grade, you won’t have to re-sit your exams next year and can reapply with your correct required grades.” Mya

What about retakes – are they worth it?

“When people consider retakes, they need to consider which university they want to go to. To study medicine at Oxford for instance, you are likely to need a full sweep of A*/A grades. If your heart is set on this course and you don’t achieve these grades, then retakes are the only option. Keep in mind, retakes are a real commitment. Most students assume they will simply retain the knowledge from their first time around. Students must commit to restudying their exams and ensuring they know even more than last time to get their desired grades. In this case, I would highly recommend getting a tutor to stay motivated and on track.” Mya

It’s worth SITTING DOWN with your child and working out what they really want. By having these CONVERSATIONS, you will be in a better position to WEIGH UP the options.

How might the school be able to help?

“Schools in general will have career counsellors or well-informed Heads of Years that should be able to support any worried parents. Some schools will even allow students to re-sit their exams the next calendar year if they don’t do as well as expected. This however is really on a school-by-school basis.” Mya

Should worse-than-expected results always lead to a change of plan?

“It’s worth sitting down with your child and working out what they really want. Are they set on a certain career path and therefore need to follow a certain route to get the required qualifications? Or perhaps they want to go to university for the life experience and an opportunity to live in a new city while continuing their education? By having these important conversations, you will be in a better position to weigh up options with your child if there is a change of plan on the day.” Ruki

How can parents stay resilient & calm if their children pick a different route to their peers?

“It can be difficult seeing your teen disappointed or having to change the plans they’d hoped for. Add to this the natural worries and emotions of being a parent, and it may not be easy to stay as calm as usual. Talking to other parents, a partner or trusted friends can help with managing your own immediate reactions and means you’re in a good frame of mind to help and support your teen as they work through their new next steps.” Matt

“The implication that a child has ‘failed’ to some extent as being out of step with their ‘full-time educated peers’ is outdated. Ultimately, many incredibly successful entrepreneurs never went to university at all - Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar and Mark Zuckerberg either never attended or completed degree-level education. Ultimately, we have to be supportive of the rich and nuanced journey each child will go through, whether that path leads them to university or not. Moreover, always remember, the option for degree-level education is always there – even if a child doesn’t intend to start this journey at the exact same time as their peers.” Mya

What are some resources children & parents should be aware of in the wake of results day?

“For parents and young people struggling with pressures in the build-up to results, or unexpected changes that could potentially follow, Teen Triple P is an excellent resource to help you support your child to cope with life's ups and downs. By developing strategies to help guide behaviours, and support teens to express and regulate emotions, Triple P can build a stronger bond between parents and teenagers and find ways to cope with challenging situations. It's also useful to have information about what help your teens' educational setting will offer such as practical support and information if results mean a new direction is being explored.” Matt

Finally, what are some of the main lessons or pieces of advice parents & children can put into practice on results day?

“Have an open mind – plans may change on results day after your child receives their grades. They still have every opportunity to find the right next step for them. Supporting your child as they explore their options is important, whether that be through clearing if they want to go to university or looking at the national careers service website if they think another education route might be better for them. Sometimes plans will change for the better and there is no point rushing into a decision before you have explore all paths together.” Ruki

“Parents should stay calm. Exam results season can be an unsettling time for the whole family, not just the person going through it. You might have some of your own worries or feel stressed on behalf of your child, and that’s understandable. However, children often mirror the behaviour of their parents. If you display that you are concerned or distressed about their exams results, it reinforces any worries your child might have, and they will be more likely to feel that way, too. Instead, having a calm and reassuring approach and letting your child know that you’ll be there for them no matter what can really help to boost their confidence and self-esteem. They’re also likely to feel more comfortable coming to you for advice if something does go wrong, or when they need support with something.” Dr Lynne

If you’re interested in further advice on how to prepare for A-levels results day, visit Beds.ac.uk/Parents-Hub. For more support around mental health, visit Kooth.com.

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