How parents can help stressed students to think.

Feeling stressed changes our thinking. This is important to remember when we are trying to help students who are under pressure.

Parents can help by: 

  1. Allowing your child space to talk.
  2. Actively practice not interrupting and not giving advice.
  3. Slow your own stress responses down.
  4. Help explore the way they are risk assessing.
  5. Be steady, open and responsive.

How Stress Changes What We Think

How do our thoughts change under stress?

What happens to the way we communicate ourselves and more to the point – do these changes help or hinder us?

These are key questions for parents to consider when it comes to exam time. We all know that in the run up to and during exams, students are stressed. We know that these are pivotal moments in their life and that the pressures are immense. And we know that parents want to help and want to support their children to succeed – most of all during this time.
As discussed in our previous blog, helping students who are under pressure isn’t easy. Often we are being asked for immediate solutions to long-term problems. Often a major part of the problem to be solved is the way in which it is being framed. Why? Because at times of stress our thinking changes and becomes much more emotionally-based.

The Role of Perception:

To get a feel for this we need to take a step back and think about the process of perception in general. The concept of perception is simple:

“Everything that we see, hear, smell and touch and everything that we think, has been filtered and selected by our brains.”

When we take in information our brains filter and prioritise it so that we can make sense of it. This is perception. We are constantly filtering for the most important information and we use a lot of pattern matching to quickly make decisions – that is chair-shaped (I sit on it), that is tiger-shaped (I run from it!).

Our brains use pattern matching because it is quick and effective. That table looks fundamentally like all the other tables I’ve seen – It’s a match ! That’s a chair – match and move on. We scan, we match, we filter, we move on.

Perception and Stress:

Under stress we can start to pattern match in a different way.  As our adrenalin levels rise our rational brain is quietly shutting off. This is why in exams it can become very hard to think and remember what we would normally find very easy to recall. Why? In evolutionary terms we don’t need to be thinking about the formula for Pi while running away from a tiger. We just need our basic survival part of the brain switched on and we need to fight or run. Complex computations are put on hold (as are a lot of other normal bodily functions such as digestion).

So back to our stressed student. Key to our understanding of providing support is understanding what is being perceived by someone under stress. 

Our perception becomes both limited and heightened: 

Limited in the sense that our field of vision narrows. Heightened in the sense that our senses are heightened and our sense of danger has escalated. Research suggests that the frontal cortex of the brain stops making accurate decisions about the level of risk. As a result it begins to trigger the amygdala and adrenalin production. The body prepares for Fight, Flight or Freeze.

This is a primal survival response. In this state it is helpful for us to remember, that rational arguments will not work!  For the person under stress, rationality is like hearing gibberish. They may understand the words but it has no emotional impact. Why? Because the rational part of their brain is not really available to them. Phrases like “Just do your best” or “You’ve worked hard all year, you should be OK” will not impact and that in itself can cause more stress. They will not understand why reassurance isn’t helping anymore!

Our thinking becomes more emotionally based:

Our brain is pattern matching in another way. It is matching our thinking with our emotions. It is matching our memory recall with our emotional state. This is a very common type of filtering which we have all experienced. 

If the current emotion is anxiety then the brain is actively scanning and filtering for other memories associated with anxiety. Anxiety-provoking memories can start popping up fluidly and easily. They seem especially true because they are flowing easily and naturally into our minds. Essentially we don’t question them and we don’t notice that we are now being flooded by anxious thoughts – it seems entirely appropriate to us.

Before we know it, we can be in an ever escalating state of increasing anxiety based on a highly filtered system that has unconsciously scanned for every anxiety producing memory that we have ever experienced and stored. It’s a PROBLEM!


  1. Allow students space to talk. Letting them feel their emotions and talk through their fears builds access back to the rational, thinking part of their brains. 
  2. Actively practice not interrupting and not giving advice, but instead listen and ask open question – all of this will enable them to gradually start to think again. 
  3. Slow your own responses down. Notice your own breathing and how relaxed or anxious you feel – anxiety breeds anxiety, so try to lower your own heightened responses. Role model a different state without being detached.
  4. Help explore the way they are risk assessing by asking open questions about the actual impact of events. “What if?” questions and “What would that mean?” questions can gradually  help catastrophic scenarios be explored and re-categorised.
  5. Your responses to so called ‘catastrophic scenarios” like “I will fail everything and then my career will be over” is crucial. Your steady, open, responsive approach can have a significant effect on helping your child re-evaluate their own sense of risk.