How to stop poor A-level results from causing mental health problems – a guide for pupils and parents 

A-level results day can be a difficult time for those who don't achieve what they wanted or expected
A-level results day can be a difficult time for those who don't achieve what they wanted or expected Credit: Getty

A-level results day can be the high point in a school career – but for many teenagers it is a more difficult milestone on the journey to adulthood.  These are the youngsters who fail to achieve the grades they hoped for, and now face a more complicated path into higher education or the workforce.

There can be lasting effects, too: research shows that post-exam stress disorder causes nightmares for one in 10 adults.  According to the research by online tutoring website MyTutor, one in four adults (24 per cent) also say that their sense of self-esteem is linked to the grades they achieved at school or university.

Of course, not all young people are affected the same way. There are plenty who will be disappointed, hide under the duvet for a few days and then start navigating Clearing and getting back on track. However, for others, poor results can mark the start of struggles with mental health which need more support.

“Getting exam results can be really stressful,” says Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at the mental health charity YoungMinds, “especially if you don’t get the grades you’re hoping for.

“It’s important to remember that your grades don’t define you and that you don’t need to compare yourself to other people – some people thrive in an academic environment, while others have other skills or passions. No matter what your results were, you can celebrate what you’ve achieved.”

Madders adds: “If you’re feeling upset or overwhelmed after getting your results, or struggling to know what to do, it’s OK to ask for help from someone you trust.”

At this stage of education, the pressure is usually internal. Most students don’t blame their parents for making them feel they need to achieve. A study of more than 1,000 British A-Level exam-takers by Quizlet, the digital learning app and platform, has revealed that 69pc of British students identify themselves as the greatest source of pressure to achieve good exam results on results day.

Some are just programmed to worry more than others, says Dr Sandi Mann, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). “Whether that’s exam results or relationships,” says Dr Mann, “it depends largely on thinking styles and mental schemas that make some people more prone to feelings of anxiety, negative thinking and catastrophic thinking.”

According to licensed psychotherapist Noel McDermott, families with a positive home environment will tend to create students who are more adept at coping with academic disappointment. “These are the ones who have good, quality times together, who have an open culture of sharing information and knowing when to seek help. People in the family are valued for who they are, not what they do.”

A teen’s own history can be instructive too, he says. “Those who have had adverse childhood experiences, early trauma, abuse or neglect, will be at greater risk of being overwhelmed. Children who have already experienced mental illness will also be at higher risk.”

So, as parents, what should we be looking for? Dr Mann says: “It is normal to lose sleep the night before results day or feel sick; it becomes a real concern when normal functioning is impaired for a sustained period of time. 

“If your child is feeling unmotivated to get on with life, is unable to concentrate, or has panic attacks, then that shouldn't be shrugged off.”

McDermott agrees: “Look out for sudden and large changes in behaviour – around food, sleep, socialising. Watch for negative talking and doom-laden thoughts of the future or describing themselves as a failure.”

Crucially, both he and Dr Mann point out, the timescale is everything. “As a rule,” says McDermott, "if behaviour persists for longer than two weeks – and is influencing daily life – it is time for an intervention clinically.”

That means a chat with the GP or a qualified psychotherapist, he points out, not diagnosing on Google. And parents shouldn’t worry that an appointment with a medical profession will lead straight to a course of antidepressants, adds McDermott. “Almost always, young people will be helped via talking therapies rather than medication.”

In addition to getting professional help, McDermott recommends making sure that the home environment is healthy.

“Humans love routine,” he says. “So instigate regular times to go to bed and get up, encourage healthy eating and exercise. Arrange meaningful encounters with others and time spent in nature. This is the basics of self-care and can be very effective.”

Students who don't achieve their desired results can still attain university education through UCAS's clearing system

There’s no doubt it can be tough for a parent to see your child underachieve but, says Tom Madders: “You can still praise your child for getting through exams and for their hard work, and tell them that you’re proud of them.”

He adds: “Encourage them to speak to their school or college who can give good advice about different options such as clearing for university or requesting a re-mark for a paper.

“But make sure they know that you still love them and don’t see these results as a ‘failure’ and try to work with them when they’re ready to get excited about new or alternative options.”

And young people need to remember to be kind to themselves, says Dr Mann. “Academic ability is often prioritised in this stage of their development, but other skills, talents and abilities become more relevant as you grow older. It’s important to remember that success can be achieved in many ways.”

Call YoungMinds' Parents Helpline Mon-Fri from 9.30am to 4pm 0808 802 5544

How are you guiding your children through getting their A-level results? We want to hear from you in the comments section below and in the Telegraph Parenting Facebook Group