Across the country at the moment, young people are engaged in a practice that w…
Across the country at the moment, young people are engaged in a practice that will give them nightmares for decades. Nope, not ﬁdget spinners or Snapchat ﬁlters: those give only adults nightmares. The real answer is exams.
It’s almost 20 years since my maths GCSE and yet the bad dreams are still the same. No revision done, the exam hall lost in a labyrinth of corridors, the start already missed. I am not alone. Exam anxiety dreams are among the most common in adults. Is it these painful associations, then, that mean a quarter of British parents report that their mental health was negatively affected by having children who are currently taking exams? Or is it, as the parents will more often tell you, because watching your child break under the pressure is enough to make anyone sick?
The statistics on teen mental health paint a dismal picture. In 2013–2014, for example, Childline witnessed a 200% increase in young people contacting their helpline because of exam stress. One in three teenage girls displays ‘psychological distress’ by the time they reach GCSEs. Meanwhile, backlogged mental health provision means waiting times to get support for a troubled teen are doubling.
Figures such as these make parents worry. On a train recently, a woman opined to me at length about her concerns that exams were ruining a generation. “Exams begin at four,” she said, “and don’t end until you’re 16 at the earliest — imagine if you can’t do them, imagine 12 years of being told you’re a failure.” It’s a hyperbole, but the government’s a desire to test four-year-olds when they start primary, and then do so again at seven, 11, 16 and 18 certainly gives the impression that children hurtle from exam to exam from infancy to adulthood.
At the most serious end of things it hasn’t much moved. The longitudinal study behind the ‘one in three’ girls headline looked at children in 2005 and again in 2014. The scientists clearly state that the proportion of teen experiencing ‘clinical levels of distress’ has not changed since 2005. And for boys, the number experiencing any psychological distress has actually gone down. It was only among girls that the numbers increased and this related to a more straightforward sort of distress, not the sort that leads to illness.
I know this makes me sound awful, but bear with me — this lower-level ‘distress’ may even be positive. A key difference between teens now and a decade ago is that modern ones are more ‘work-focused’ but more distressed because they feel ‘less in control’. This is not all bad, however. It turns out that because teens now spend more time worrying about exams, they have become much more likely to want to go on to higher education and much less likely to have social problems such as get drunk, vandalize or shoplift. At the same time, no one wants their child to be in ﬂoods of tears after botching a question on vectors or oxbow lakes.
We should remember that young people are resilient and develop natural, if slightly annoying, coping mechanisms. A sur vey of 1,000 teenagers by the National Citizen Service found that one in 10 teens stopped showering during exam season and one in ﬁve did not leave the house for days. This may be a more malodorous solution than most adults would prefer, but it replicates a generations-long tradition of hiding yourself away while you awkwardly slope from childhood to adultdom. Any dramatic changes in behaviour should be ﬂagged with professionals, but for most children, if they are supported with love, a sense of humour and by people they can talk to, teenage anxieties can be successfully traversed without damage. Though, possibly, not without nightmares.
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What does the mentioning of doubling in the 3rd paragraph refer to?
- The number of troubled teens.
- The period of waiting times.
- The number of girls who have ‘psychological distress’.
- The number of young people contacting Childline.
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