Your child’s mental health matters

The countdown to the 2019 National Senior Certificate examinations has begun, and if you are the parent of a matric learner you may well be thinking of the weeks ahead with some trepidation. Your child is about to go through a rite of passage, leaving the world of school behind, and how they perform will have reverberating effects. It’s a trial in their young life that won’t just test their intellectual capabilities but their resilience and emotional intelligence too.

One of the most common mistakes is parents presenting that they know it all, because they have gone through matric themselves. It’s important to be mindful that while drawing on your own experience can be appropriate and helpful sometimes, your child is shaped by a very different worldview and will be having their unique experience of this crucial time.

It’s important to note that your Gen Z matric student is part of generation with far greater awareness and experience of mental health issues. They report higher levels of anxiety and depression, and are predisposed towards worry and feeling chronically unsafe. Theirs is a world that has always been one of political, economic, social and environmental crisis. They view their present and the possibilities in their uncertain future very differently from the way you did at their age. Their journey through the trials of matric and into young adulthood is underpinned by mental health.

Exams are much more than a child showing their commitment to working as hard as they can

“Too often parents of matrics take the view that if ‘you just work hard, study hard, you’ll do okay’” says Jogini Packery, Counselling Psychologist and Head of Student Services at SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology).

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“However, the whole exam experience is much more than a child showing their commitment to working as hard as they possibly can. Many kids, who are as well-prepared as they can be intellectually, have their performance derailed by becoming overwhelmed by their emotions and stress.

“Parents can help to promote that healthy living requires balance, even when the scales are tilted to prioritize studies. They also need to help their matric student when it comes to the setting of expectations around exam performance to avoid their child’s self-appraisal and self-worth being viewed through the narrow lens of exam performance. Not all learners have career goals that are focused on academic achievements, and therefore other strengths should be taken into consideration when it comes to expectations.”

Here are five strategies for parents to support their child’s mental health and help them to be at their best over exam time:

1. Make your child’s emotional well-being a priority

Your child’s mental health matters. This is a really important time to be talking about feelings, and understanding how they affect behaviours.

Help your child to identify the sources of stress and the thoughts that evoke fear and anxiety. Help them to become aware of their ways of dealing with negative feelings; and to find coping strategies that help them bounce back quickly and effectively. Emphasise the importance of having a calm and emotionally supportive home environment to all family members.

Keeping yourself cool, calm and collected over this time is the most positive way that you can nurture their mental health

2. Promote and enable proactive stress management

The stresses of matric exam time are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t limit the impact. Some level of stress can be a positive motivator for some kids, but what happens if the stress gets too much for your child? It’s important to talk about the stresses of this life-changing time and have a plan for managing the impacts. Help your child become aware when their stress is rising.

Watch for signs such as not sleeping or eating well, needing distraction or isolating themselves. Keep the channels of communication open and the focus on the importance of mental health. Discuss ways that will help your child proactively relieve stress such as taking some time away from the study schedule to connect with a friend.

3. Promote and enable healthy living

A healthy body promotes a healthy mind. Often the matric study schedule demands some sacrifices but this should not compromise the basics of good health. Sufficient restorative sleep is vital and must be prioritised to optimise both emotional well-being and intellectual capacity.

Encourage regular physical activity; it’s not just good for the body but the mind too. Exercise, even a walk around the block, will release endorphins that relieve stress and refresh the mind.

Keep the house well-stocked with healthy eating options, including healthy snacks.

4. Make sure expectations are realistic

Like stress, expectations also need to be managed around matric exam time. Parents instinctively have high hopes for their children; so it’s up to us to ensure that our expectations of our matric child are not contributing to their stress. It’s also common for kids to have expectations of themselves that heighten negative emotions and cause them stress. Conversations around their goals for the matric exams and proper planning of their study schedule can highlight expectations that might be creating debilitating pressures.

5. Model the emotional well-being you want for them

Yes, they are almost an adult, but you’re still their most important role model…

Keeping yourself cool, calm and collected over this time is the most positive way that you can nurture their mental health. If you are demonstrating how well your stress can be managed, they are more likely to get on board with their own stress management. Taking care of your own mental health will empower you to have caring, compassionate conversations and support them in facing the challenges of matric with courage and resilience.