Mental Health Awareness Week: Signs of a Struggling Student To Look Out For

For the UK’s cohort of students, the main summer exam period is due to begin next week. Yet in the run-up to this year’s GCSEs and A-levels, a new report has unveiled the spike in levels of anxiety among pupils, with teachers reporting an all-time high in panic attacks, angry outbursts, self-harm, and disengagement among students.

Acknowledging students’ heightened anxiety, particularly due to being the first cohort in three years to sit in-person exams, MyTutor – the UK’s most trusted tutoring platform – compiles their top tips on how to support the teens suffering most, and signs of struggling to look out for.

They’re not sleeping or eating well
Exam anxiety can have a negative knock-on effect when it comes to your teen’s physical health. Thoughts like, ‘I’m going to fail,’ or ‘I have to do well or I won’t get into a good uni,’ can keep them up at all hours. As a parent, you’ll know the tell-tale signs of when they’re not getting enough sleep. Do they look tired? Are they falling asleep in class, or at strange times of the day? Are they more irritable than usual?

And when they’re stressed, their appetite can take a hit, too. Are they skipping meals? Leaving lots of food on their plate? Or, are they eating tons of junk food? Under-eating and overeating are both red flags when it comes to their well-being–and it might mean they’re feeling overwhelmed.

They’re a lot more irritable
If they’re lashing out or having meltdowns, they might be feeling the pressure. Teenage years are prickly anyway, with their brains going through lots of changes. But if you’re seeing a big difference in their mood during exam season, it could be a sign of burnout. They might have gaps in their learning, and they’re lashing out because they’re just not getting it. Or, they’re overworking because they’re worried they’re not good enough. Whatever the reason behind their stress– there’s a good chance they’ll take it out on those around them.

They want to spend all their time alone.

What makes spotting burnout trickier with teens is that they like to spend more time on their own anyway. But when they’re not seeing friends and keeping to themselves more than usual, it might be a sign that they’re having a hard time. There are behaviours you can look out for. Like if they’re lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, or at their screens for hours at a time– it’s a good idea to check in to see what’s going on.

They’ve lost interest in things they normally enjoy
Hobbies and interests are so important to your teen’s wellbeing. It helps keep them balanced. But if they’re pulling away from the things they love– like football practice or even just watching their favourite shows, it might be a sign they’re overworking.

How you can help them get through it
It’s completely normal for you to worry when your teen’s going through a stressful time. But there’s still lots you can do as a parent to help them along. Exam season is a bit like a marathon, and it takes regular self-care to make it to the finish line.

Have regular chats to check-in
Having regular time together makes it easier for your teen to open up. Dr Louise Egan, a child psychologist, says it’s important to find out why your teen is working themselves so hard. Do they think they’re not good enough? Are they worried about what you think? Spending regular time with your teen means you can get a better picture on why they’re so anxious. ‘There’s no quick fix,’ Dr Egan says. But if you put your teen in the driver’s seat by asking them, ‘What can I do to help?’ you might be surprised by how they open up. And with lots of chats and encouragement, you can help them work out a more balanced relationship with their revision.

Help them build down-time into their schedules
A revision timetable can help your teen to stay on top of things. It means they can relax too, since they’ve scheduled their study time. To make their day-to-day more balanced, they can slot in fun activities. Encourage them to include things like, ‘trip to the cinema’, or ‘catch-up with friends’ into their timetable. If they’re still stressed about spending time away from revision, let them know how breaks actually help their brain learn better.

Give them advice on managing screen time
Screen time is not all bad– in fact there are lots of helpful learning resources they can tap into while they’re revising. But, screens can have a negative effect on their wellbeing too, by getting in the way of sleep. And when they’re not sleeping well, it affects everything–from their mood, to how they study and learn. Encourage them to have a break from their screens 1-2 hours before bed. And if they just can’t part with their phone, have them change the settings to nighttime mode, so that the blue lights are at least switched off.

Reach out for support
There are times when they just need a helping hand from an expert. Whether that’s with a tutor (if their anxiety comes from learning gaps), or with a healthcare professional– there are people and organisations here to help teens.

Here are a few good resources to tap into, as recommended by the NHS:

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS)
Kooth which delivers psychological support for teens
Mental health apps: Catch It, Blueice, Chill Panda
Of course, advice from experts is always handy, but you know better than anyone else if your child’s struggling. With a few of these tips plus your encouragement and support, your teen can get through exams feeling calm and confident.