Solihull Approach | Parenting

Spotlight

Exam season: Understanding your teenager's changing brain and how to help

29 May 2024

Dr Rebecca Johnson

Teenage Brain Development During Exam Season

The biggest period of growth in our brains is in the first three years of our lives. After this, the next time of big brain development is when we are teenagers. 

Perhaps you’ve noticed changes in how your teenager behaves already? Particularly around exam season, they may be reacting to the stress of so many tests very differently compared to when they took their SATs in primary school. 

Teenage brain development could be responsible…

Changes in the teenage brain

As teenagers, on top of puberty and coping with changes in their bodies, they are also having to cope with big changes in the way their brain is organised. 

It is perhaps easiest to imagine the teenage brain like two major construction zones—the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system which is where the amygdalae sit. The prefrontal cortex, up front and center, handles all the heavy thinking stuff like decision-making, problem-solving and making sense of emotions and physical sensations. Meanwhile, the amygdalae, nestled deep inside, are like the brain’s personal alarm systems, always on the lookout for danger. When people talk about the ‘fight or flight response’, they will have been referring to the amygdala as this is what’s responsible for triggering that reaction. 

During puberty, your teenager’s prefrontal cortex undergoes some serious building work so that they have a mature adult brain ready to use for the rest of their life. 

All the learning they’ve done up until this point, whether that’s academic content or social skills they’ve developed through their relationships with you and peers, needs to be consolidated, reorganised and sorted through ready for adulthood. Whilst this is going on, the controls for things like reading facial expressions and speech are temporarily relocated from this logical part of the brain into the amygdala, the alarm center, to keep these skills safe while the construction work takes place. 

This makes sense when you think about it in evolutionary terms, since being able to spot a threatening facial expression would have been essential for survival! So that function gets special treatment by placing it in the most primitive part of the brain to protect it and keep your growing child safe. 

The impact this has during exams

However, whilst the limbic system is good for the essentials, like keeping us alert and alive, it isn’t as sophisticated as the cortex, so it might misinterpret a facial expression and it’s going to err on the side of caution and treat something as a threat even when it might not be. Have you ever had that conversation with your teenager where the answer seems completely logical and well-reasoned to you, yet they can’t quite wrap their head around it? Maybe they react as if you’ve just had a go at them? All these changes in brain activity might be the reason why! 

Understandably, this huge remodelling project that your teen’s brain is going through is likely to impact how they feel during their days at secondary school. For example, a maths exam is designed to assess problem-solving skills, but they could be queuing outside the exam hall with their amygdala trying to alert them to something it thinks is a threat, rather than letting them get on calmly with logical reasoning.  

You may see and experience your teenager becoming anxious or frustrated about exams, which can be hard to watch as a parent as we don’t enjoy seeing them feel stressed. But these feelings are their amygdala’s way of trying to monitor the situation and help – even if it doesn’t feel like it! Reassuring your teenager that these feelings are a completely normal reaction can help them feel seen and understood during, what can be, a very daunting season in their life. A little bit of anxiety is a good thing, it helps us pay attention and keeps us energized to focus and concentrate on work – which can be incredibly useful to get ‘in the zone’ during an exam. But the amygdala can flip into full-on panic mode. 

Reassuring your teenager that these feelings are a completely normal reaction can help them feel seen and understood during, what can be, a very daunting season in their life.

A little bit of anxiety is a good thing, it helps us pay attention and keeps us energized to focus and concentrate on work – which can be incredibly useful to get ‘in the zone’ during an exam. But the amygdala can flip into full-on panic mode. 

How you can help

Talking with your teenager and continuing to make time for your relationship with them can be transformational during this time. Letting them know that you are a safe person to talk to about how they are feeling and feeding back to them in manageable chunks what they have just told you can help them process their experiences from the day – whether they feel their exam went really well or if they wished they could give it another shot. 

Reminding them to be gentle to themselves can help when they feel anxious as well. It’s important for them (and us too!) to take time to calm down their amygdala when they feel overwhelmed. Taking deep breaths can help or perhaps they have worked out their own personal strategies for calming themselves down to prevent their amygdala from going into full on fight or flight mode. 

As parents, we have a great opportunity to teach and model to our teens how to stay calm in healthy ways when confronted with stressful situations. This is the life skill they are developing as they sit their exams and letting them know you love them regardless of the grades they get can release any internal pressure they feel to perform beyond their capacity.

If you’re interested in learning more about your teenager and the changes that are happening in their brain, then why not try our online course for parents ‘Understanding your teenager’s brain’ at inourplace.co.uk. Developed by a team of Clinical Psychologists, Child Psychotherapists, Health Visitors, Child and Family Practitioners and, importantly, parents. Everything you will follow and learn in the course has been informed by experience and is designed to be practical, to help you and your family in your everyday interactions. 

Dr Rebecca Johnson

Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Solihull Approach Development Manager

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