“It is that time of the year when exam anxiety starts gripping everyone. I thought that once they left home all that would be over, but our oldest daughter N. has her first year history degree exams and is even more anxious than the other two, who have “A” levels and GCSE. She rings every evening full of anxious questions and has been coming home each weekend despite the expense of the train fare. History is a strong family subject and she has an excellent grounding in it. Our other two, by contrast, have concentrated on subjects which neither of us are any good at and don’t lead to any particular career. They seem to be spending hours interrupting each other’s revision”.
All over the country children, adolescents and young adults are facing examinations. Emotionally and intellectually, this is a major life event for all. It makes little difference whether the examination is by continuous assessment or not; whether it is marked by those you know or by strangers. For the final significance is that it is a rite of passage to a different stage of life that cannot be reached by any other means.
All exams, at every stage of childhood life, can evoke feelings of rivalry between siblings and class-mates. Who is the cleverest, the most imaginative, the most artistic, the most scientific? These can be an older version of the earliest sibling rivalry -who is the most loved and wanted child of all? Examinations can also stir up rivalry between child and parent. The child inside the parent can feel competitive with the real child. The film “Kes” brilliantly showed a PE teacher’s need to score more goals than his child pupils! Conversely, the child can find the parent’s success or adulthood intolerable. Whether a parent is encouraging, like Mrs T.P., or not, choosing a strong family subject poses the problems for N. of being measured where others have already succeeded.
The opposite choice, choosing subjects parents have no skill in, poses another dilemma. Mrs T.P’s youngest children might be avoiding direct rivalry with their parents by studying languages, but they still have each other to contend with. Their shared rivalry might be intensified now their older sister is showing signs of stress and taking up parental time.
All childhood exams involve difficulties but the exams of late adolescence and young adulthood involve major hurdles. As psychologist Paul Upson puts it, “These later exams are a hoop the adult world is asking you to jump through. Will you find a place in it? Have you got an ability that will be valued? These examinations are tickets to the adult world.” N has left home but she now faces her next staging post. Does she want to be an adult; employable for her skill in a subject her family are well-grounded in?
The late Rose Edgcumbe, psychoanalyst at the Anna Freud Centre highlighted this point. “Examinations are a moment of truth. Are you capable of being an adult and eventually earning your own living? You are on your way to self sufficiency and that is a hard task for people who are only just moving away and separating”. Working with such issues on an Academic Failure project at Johnson House she found that students who had the deepest anxieties had trouble breaking away from home ties.
Cassie Cooper, former Head of Student Services at Harrow College of the Polytechnic of Central London, has been running Examination Workshops for over 15 years. These last for six weeks and involve a range of techniques to reduce exam anxiety. She comments that many students who leave home successfully and establish new friendships regress when it comes to exam time. The strain of moving further into adulthood means “lots of envy is expressed about brothers and sisters still at home “. Nevertheless, she points out that many of these students are, like N, good students who have had the resources to survive their first year up to the examination point.
However, she makes the worrying point that resources can be depleted, not just by internal anxiety to deal with, but also the external reality of current employment prospects. “ Students always used to bring their parents’ anxieties about whether they would get a job but this has risen dramatically. Parents now might be unemployed, redundant, or single and they are putting more pressure on their children to follow well-paid careers.” Might Mrs T.P. be adding to her younger children’s worries by her concern about their career choice or is it aiding them? Child psychotherapist Mrs Eileen Orford points to the difficult balance parents need to keep to provide encouragement as well as recognition of difficulties.
Rose Edgcumbe underlined this; “Parents need help to recognise that you can’t always get it right for your children. If you are highly qualified your children have a problem of fearing they will be failures in your eyes and if you are under-qualified your children feel guilty at trying to do better than you.”
Serious problems arise if parents are ambivalent or hostile to their children’s growing independence in ways which can be indirectly expressed. For example, there are female students whose parents demand time consuming household work in the revision period. Conversely, there can be students who find it so intolerable that this hurdle needs to be negotiated that they undermine their own potential to avoid their parents’ jealousy. In those circumstances extra help might be needed.