How Parents Can Manage the Stress of Exam Results

Once upon a time, way back in the day when there were only two television channels available and they were both in black and white, the only people interested in exam results were those directly involved. The results arrived at your house by post, in an envelope addressed to you, the exam candidate, and could be opened when and where and how you chose.

You could absorb the grades in the privacy of your bedroom, or in the company of your parents or a friend or a sympathetic dog, or sitting on your backpack ready to hit the Kathmandu trail if it had all gone Pete Tong, as we didn’t say in those days.

Now, of course, exam results are news. They are published, dissected, compared, ranked, used as ammunition in local and national educational battles. For the Young Persons involved, the degree of interest and scrutiny and the appropriation of results as public property can make a stressful experience even harder to handle.

Your response and your Young Person’s response to the results will be somewhere on a scale ranging from absolutely delighted to bitterly disappointed. You can manage your immediate reaction, whatever it is, in a way which minimises stress, enables positive communication and helps you both to stay calm. You can also find ways of dealing with the days after the results, when the tension and drama have receded but the emotional fall-out and practical considerations still need to be addressed.

Acknowledge your YP’s feelings

Let your YP take in the information. Listen to their response. Notice their body language. Don’t contradict it. Allow them to have their own reaction to their own results.


Don’t rush in with your interpretation of the results (unless they are precisely what was wanted and expected). If your YP is satisfied with what you think are less than satisfactory grades, let it run for a bit. If they are disappointed with what you think are good results, don’t immediately smother them with reassurances. Accept their emotional state, whatever it is. Intervening too soon will set up a barrier between you and lay you open to accusations of not understanding, not supporting — oh, you know the rest.

Share your response

Don’t pretend, but be as supportive as you can be. Don’t focus on the worst aspect. You might think ‘What a shame about the D in History’ but saying it doesn’t change the situation.

You could say things like:

  • ‘You worked really hard and I’m sorry you’re disappointed.’
  • ‘I’m proud of what you’ve achieved.’

Ask open questions

After the initial response, if there is need for further discussion, begin by keeping the focus on the person. Ask them what they think about the next step, ask them if there is anything you can do, or what they would like you to do. Ask how they feel about celebrating, about sharing the news, about seeing other people. Be prepared for them to say one thing and then change their minds.

Don’t blame

When things go wrong, it’s a natural instinct to look for someone to blame. Disappointment with exam results may lead you to blame your YP, yourself, their friends, the school, their teachers, the exam board, the new grading system.

It’s probably best to curb this response. It is unlikely that poor (or good) exam performance can be traced to a single identifiable source.

There are processes in place should you feel that you would like the results to be investigated. If you follow this route, look on it as a matter of procedure, not as a hunt for a scapegoat.

Sometimes life just isn’t fair.

Talking about results with other people

You know who your friends are, the ones who will have your back no matter what. But it’s those on the periphery such as more distant family members, other parents you don’t know well, interested acquaintances, colleagues, who can be tricky to talk to.

Sometimes we worry most about facing the people who matter least. You can’t stop people being interested, but you can prepare how you will respond. You can shape the way you communicate the results so that you present your YP in the best light.

Communicating disappointing results

Remember that your first responsibility is to your YP. Don’t apologise for them, or make a joke about them, or put them down.

You can choose what information to give. You don’t have to give details if you don’t want to. When asked how someone did in their GCSEs/A levels, you could say something like:

  • ‘Pretty much as expected, thanks for asking. They’re really looking forward to starting the sixth form/university/starting a career/beginning a new course/the next phase of their life.’
  • ‘A bit disappointing, but they’re considering their options.’

Communicating good results

Enjoy every minute and celebrate to the full with the right people in the right context. With the world in general, give full credit to your YP and try not to sound smug. Avoid the humble brag: ‘Not too bad — four A stars but only an A for astrophysics’. Again, move away from the results and focus on the future:

  • ‘She did really well, and we’re all delighted that she can move on to…’

Manage your response to other people’s results

If it’s hard to hear about someone else’s success, flip an imaginary shield between you so that the words don’t get to you. Smile and say how wonderful.

If someone is telling you about disappointing results, take your cue from what they say and how they say it.

  • Empathise with their situation without imposing your own views.
  • Don’t give reassurances unless you know they are wanted.
  • Don’t make comparisons.

Limit your media contact

Exam results will be all over television and the newspapers. They will be on Facebook and Twitter. They will be the subject of thousands of texts. You can choose how much you want to be involved in the national frenzy. You could warn your YP of the dangers of social media at this particular point. There’s sometimes no harm in telling them something they already know. We can deal with images of triplets who each got six A*s and ten-year-olds who got top marks in the whole country for computer science, but not everyone does.

A sense of perspective

In the end, exams are devices which serve a particular function. They don’t measure a person’s worth, or tell you anything about their character or personality. If your YP finds that hard to accept at this point, ask if they can tell you the early exam results gained by a sports coach they admire, or their uncle, or their favourite teacher, or a terrific boss. They probably can’t.

Kathmandu was great, by the way.

You might also like:

power1How to Use Your Personal Power at Work

conversation1How Likeable People Find the Right Tone

listencovermar14cjsmallerHow To Listen

Using Listening Skills for More Effective Communications