Toby* came to see me because his parents asked if I could help him with his nervousness about his upcoming A level exams. However, the cause turned out to be something they hadn’t expected.
When I see young people under 18 they always have an adult with them, normally one of their parents. Sometimes the challenge isn’t to get the young person to speak, but to get the parent to let them. Toby’s mum was a prime example of this – she said that she’d give me some brief background but brevity wasn’t her strength.
“Toby got excellent results at GCSE” she told me “and the school have predicted excellent A level grades as well – that’s why he’s going to Imperial in London. It’s not Oxbridge but it’s a top university for his subject. That’s why it’s so important to us that he has to overcome these nerves and achieve his full potential.”
One thing I’ve found over the years is that whatever people say when they come to see me reveals something about them or their situation. Quite often it’s in their throwaway comments, or things they don’t even realise they’ve said. Toby’s mother was no different in that respect, and her being there meant I could get an idea of the relationship between them.
“Stop telling everyone I’m going to Imperial. It’s an offer not a guarantee, and Exeter is just as good.” Toby had spoken at last, and in his first twenty words had pretty much confirmed to me what was behind his exam nerves.
A level courses can have particular problems, especially when people have done well at GCSE. Having to work harder to learn can feel as if your ability has gone, and that can be daunting and isolating. Add to that the pressure of being expected to do well and the result can be a collapse in their confidence.
This was behind Toby’s exam nerves too. He was finding the course harder than he’d expected and had thought that meant he wasn’t good enough. He hadn’t told his teachers, who thought that he wasn’t making the effort, and he hadn’t told his parents because of the pressure he felt.
Phrases like “he’s going to Imperial” and “it’s important to us” might sound trivial but they showed the way that his mother thought. What she had meant to be positive encouragement had hardened into what Toby saw as expectations. He was pulling back from studying hard because he didn’t want to get the grades for Imperial College – he wanted to go to Exeter.
With that resolved, and some advice about coping with exam stress and revision techniques, he got to grips with his studies again. The point of university, after all, is as much about the experience and learning to live independently as it is about the education. What we sometimes forget is that the learning can be for the parents as well as their children.
* Toby’s real identity has been protected, and he is happy to share his story.
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