Dazed and confused - post-exam disorientation

Exams may be the biggest stress for most teenagers but what happens when exams are finished? Does all the stress switch off? Is it as simple as that? Nicola Morgan takes a look...

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I was walking through a school with the librarian recently when we bumped into a girl. She looked...I don't know, washed out. Limp. Yet floating. Her cheeks were shining but somehow her eyes weren't. She looked as though she'd just woken from a disorienting dream. "I was looking for you," said the girl to the librarian. "I just had my last exam. I don't know what to feel. I don't know what to do with myself."

Short sentences, fragile, as though she didn’t quite have the breath for them. I let them talk for a bit. I felt in the way, to be honest, because I knew the librarian would know far more than I could about this girl's hopes and fears.

A hard-working, ambitious, high-achieving girl, I guessed. Her heart set on a good university, I learnt. Not knowing if she'd done enough to get there. Knowing she couldn't do any more now, that it was all done, all over bar the nail-biting. I know - because you could tell by looking at her, tell by the tiredness in her eyes - that she had done everything she could and I'm as sure as anyone can be that it will be enough. She had worked so many years for this and it will be enough. But she can't relax, even now. Even on that gorgeous summer day, almost the end of term, in idyllic greenery with her friends not far away and supportive adults caring about her, still the stress chemicals buzzed under her skin, looking for something to do.

She had another thing to be stressed about: school ends for her this week. It is almost all over. That environment which over the years has (I'm guessing here and making generalisations - I know nothing about her) fostered a maelstrom of emotions and stress and ambition and frustration and achievement and sometimes failure (because only the unambitious never fail), full of friends and not-so-friends and all sorts of people and happenings that have helped make her what she is, is about to be left behind. School – it’s letting her go, regardless of how much or how little she is ready.

And she and all her friends have a whole new life ahead of her. Which they want and yet fear. Which is brilliantly exciting and yet heart-shudderingly scary. What will they do next and what choices will they make? What things will happen to them that they can't control? This is the independence we are born, nurtured, educated and fight for, and here, suddenly, it is. The end of school. And it's hard to know what to think when something you've wanted for so long is there.

So, what am I saying and where is my advice? It's not terribly profound. Leaving school is an incredible time. It should be full of relief and pride and hope, but it's often a million times more complicated and the relief and pride and hope can sometimes be hard to feel. Don't assume, as I have just done, that you know how your school leavers are feeling. They will each be feeling different; many will be confused and may not evenknowhow they are feeling. Some will be purely and simply happy; some will be purely and simply scared; most will be a mixture of many things. Some will show it and some won't. Some will be too tired to feel very much at all.

Allow them a little time of madness and be there for them when the excitement and emotion fade.

Over the next few weeks, I'm blogging here about the stress and excitement of job-hunting, work experience, CVs and the world after school. I'm on record as saying that exams aren't everything - so, what else do young people need to find the best, most suitable and most satisfying job they can? And how can their significant adults help them?


Nicola Morgan

Author and speaker about adolescence, -

Nicola Morgan is a multi-award-winning author for and about teenagers and an renowned speaker at conferences and schools around the world. Her classic book on the teenage brain, BLAME MY BRAIN – THE TEENAGE BRAIN REVEALED, was followed by THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO STRESS and THE TEENAGE GUIDE TO FRIENDS and innovative multimedia teaching resources on the brain and mental health, BRAIN STICKS™, STRESS WELL FOR SCHOOLS and EXAM ATTACK. Her next books are POSITIVELY TEENAGE (May) and LIFE ONLINE (June). She writes articles at www.nicolamorgan.com