FUELLED on pizza and energy drinks, surrounded by clutter and last year’s chemistry papers, they emerge from smelly, dark retreats with a grunt to raid the fridge before returning to a place no parent with any sense would dare to tread.
Once upon a time they were your cute toddler with the dimpled smile and charming way of laughing hysterically at your jokes and smearing banana on your freshly decorated walls.
Now, of course, they are that terrifying species known as “teenage exam monster”.
Exam season kicks off today – as if parents of teens didn’t know it – and with the first students settling down to modern studies and accounting exams, for some the time for studying has already passed.
For others – parents as well as teens – there’s a whole month of stress and tension to look forward to.
Dr Maria Gascon, of Edinburgh-based First Psychology (www.firstpsychology.co.uk), says exam time is challenging for all.
“It’s a very tense time. For parents, there’s still the normal day-to-day work to be done, other children to look after. There’s only so much you can do.
“For the student, there are already a lot of physical changes happening – the adolescent stage brings one of the most massive biological changes in brain and body. There’s major restructuring of everything and a lot of internal turmoil.”
Add exams into an already potent mix, stand back and wait for the explosion.
“Help is at hand though and there are strategies parents may employ to try to avoid flashpoints for a smoother time during exams,” Maria adds.
So what can you do to support your teen monster through exam hell?
FUEL THEIR MINDS
The typical teenage diet of pizza, chips, energy drinks, leftover Easter eggs and toast hardly constitutes “brain food”.
But putting the right fuel into their bodies could actually give them the edge at exam time.
According to mum-of-four Tara Inchbald Holt, of Pure Nutrition (www.purenutrition.org.uk), proper hydration, fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish and healthy fats in nuts and seeds are key all year round, not just at exam time.
“The most obvious thing is to drink lots of water to hydrate all the cells in the body, including the brain cells which can become dehydrated and shrivel up.
“Energy drinks contain sugar and caffeine which are very addictive, even fruit juice is full of sugar.”
She recommends steering teens towards a healthy breakfast to kick-start energy levels – perhaps a smoothie made from fruit, spinach, coconut milk, almond water and yoghurt, followed by eggs. Follow up with healthy snacks of nuts and seeds and oatcakes and hummus for lunch and salmon, salad and veg for dinner.
“Walnuts are a great brain food,” she says. “Not only do they look like little brains, they are rich in essential oils. Keep bowls of seeds and nuts – not salted peanuts though – on the kitchen worktop so they can dip into them when they’re passing,” adds Tara, whose daughter, Scarlett, 15, is currently in the grip of exam fever.
“Kids turn to junk because their body isn’t sated and they are looking for essential fats.
“If junk food isn’t in the house, they can’t eat it.”
GIVE THEM SPACE
Teenagers need space, not just physical room to sprawl out on but space from a constantly nagging parent.
Deal with the first by ensuring they have a decent desk and comfy chair, avoiding the additional problem of aches and pains from too much time hunched over books .
If they share a room with a younger or older sibling, a sleepover for them at a relative or friend’s house will give your teenager much needed breathing space.
Then give them “head space” by switching off your parental “nag mode”.
“There’s a balance between being caring and supportive and nagging,” warns Maria.
“What to you is helpful, teenagers can interpret as pressure which gets their backs up and can lead to arguments.
“Instead of saying ‘When are you going to do some studying?’ take a more conversational approach such as ‘I notice you’re spending a lot of time in your room, how are things going?’.
“Offer them a chance to talk and work on how to rearrange their other commitments to make it easier.”
MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK
Virtually all youngsters will argue that background music helps them revise. However, research disagrees.
If your teen insists on study tunes, nicely suggest music which is familiar and not too loud. Apparently listening to baroque music can enhance learning – good luck encouraging them to download a bit of Handel.
EXERCISE THAT BRAIN
Exercise is good for the mind and soul, even better if it is outdoors.
This doesn’t have to mean a 10k run before school but a walk with the dog or half-hour knockabout on the football pitch will help improve concentration.
Edinburgh-based Nicola Morgan, author of Blame My Brain, a book about teenage brain development, says: “Whatever age and stage they are at, there needs to be some relaxation built in to every day, even if it’s just half an hour going for a walk.
“It releases stress and takes your mind off things.
“A brisk walk outside has huge health and anti-stress benefits and is also a very good way of thinking things through – and it gets more oxygen to your brain.”
SLEEP IT OFF
Getting a good night’s sleep is vital, but as parents know, the sandmen are irregular visitors to teenagers’ rooms.
Nicola – whose blog at www.nicolamorgan.com contains advice on exam stress – agrees that teenagers have a sleep pattern that is not necessarily their fault.
“Teenagers need an hour’s more sleep than adults, but the body clock in their brain makes them sleepy at the same time as adults,” she explains.
“That’s a problem when they have to get up early and get to school.
“It’s hard to get those extra hours of sleep, particularly when there’s so much going on in their lives.”
She suggests encouraging them to put away the electronic gadgets well before bedtime – particularly as social network sites will be full of friends’ comments stressing about exams.
Gentle wind down time – tidying up, writing in a diary, reading a book or playing soft music – can create a sleepy mood.
Their bedroom looks like a clothes explosion in a Primark store and the word “organised” doesn’t make it into their vocabulary, but having some sense of order wouldn’t hurt. A clear workspace for starters will, if nothing else, give them somewhere to pile up their empty juice bottles and stinking plates.
Separate books, papers and study aids into subject piles – it will save having to rip the room apart looking for vital biology notes which are somehow hidden inside the history folder under the bed.
Tara’s daughter Scarlett has organised her workload perfectly – even down to scheduling in her own mini exams.
“She puts a notice on the bedroom door ‘exam in progress’, and we have to be quiet until she’s done,” explains Tara.
Support your teen by finding out what topics they should focus on and pointing them towards revision guides – although expect to be met with rolling eyes and a slammed door for your efforts.
If there is confusion about what they should be doing, check with the school – teachers want your child to pass just as much as you do.
“You have to support each other,” adds Maria. “It’s very difficult for parents to see their child struggling, you feel helpless.
“Find other people to support you as a parent – it’s not easy to be growled at by our child. If you talk to other parents, you’ll find they are probably going through the same. It’s all perfectly normal.”
A moody teen is a challenge at the best of times – one with school exam pressure has the potential to make an entire family beg for mercy.
Warn younger siblings of how important exam time is and ask, or bribe them, for support.
Maria says families have to accept difficult days ahead. “This is going to be a stressful time for the whole family – expect outbursts and try to remain calm.
“Step away from a situation that may be escalating and come back to it after you have had a chance to cool down and think things through.
“Collaborate with your child to work out possible solutions. If your child feels they are part of the solution, they are more likely to follow through.
“Think in advance about potential flashpoints and formulate a plan about how you would like to deal with them.”
Encourage your child to have regular breaks, even if it’s just half an hour off for their favourite TV programme.
Maria says getting away from the overwhelming pressure is vital.
She adds: “Ensure you set time aside to do fun and relaxing activities for yourself and your family which may foster positive feelings.”
Nicola agrees: “Stress does make you perform as well as possible, but problems occur if you don’t let that stress switch off.
“Now the exams are upon us, there no point in pushing students to work harder, it’s now about preparing their bodies and their brains for what is ahead.”
JUST BE THERE
The support your child will find most valuable at this time is knowing you’re right behind them.
Cut them some slack with the chores, bite your lip when they become snappy and offer up a well-timed hug when it gets too much.
Plan a treat for when it’s all over – regardless of how they think they’ve done.
Offer reassurance, not criticism. And remind them that there will be other opportunities in the future if things don’t go to plan.
“Remember this is really very normal,” adds Maria.
“It’s a rite of passage and part of the transition into growing up.
“It’s when children learn they have to take more responsibility and realise they are not playing at being at school any more, that this is their future.
“There are always options – people can come back to studying later, take different paths and what happens over the next few weeks isn’t the end of the road.”
Best intentions may not help
MUM of two Rhona Ahmed’s exam nerves have already kicked in, with the countdown to daughter Mohafin’s first big exam under way.
“I find it a very stressful time,” she says. “I love my children and I want them to be the best they can be but, at the same time, I hate to see them stressed. However, this year I’ve learned to take a step back when it comes to exams – because I know that my stress just rubs off on them.”
Portobello High pupil Mohafin, 17, sits her English Higher on Thursday, followed by French, art and biology Highers and Maths Intermediate Two.
But when it comes to helping her study, Rhona admits her help might be counterproductive.
“I was trying to help her with her French studying, but I ended up speaking French with a Spanish accent,” she says with a laugh. “Worst of it is, I don’t even speak Spanish and hadn’t a clue what I was saying, so I’m not sure I was much help.”
Rhona’s son Omar, who’s seven, has been warned to give his big sister space to study. And with Mohafin’s tendency to ‘cram’ at the last minute, Rhona, of Milton Road, is prepared for some tension.
“She did well in her exams last year despite being a last-minute crammer type. And there’s a lot of support available at school. As long as she tries to do her best, it will be fine.”