Teens with OCD might struggle during exam time. It is a high stress time. Internal resources are running low. As a parent or loved one, you want to help them. What can you do?

What happens to adolescents and teenagers during exam time?

The end of the school year is often met with delight and stress. While summer is just around the corner, many older teens and young adults will be facing final exams. Exams, unlike tests, often carry the stress of being worth more marks and covering a vast amount of knowledge that has been taught over several months. 

During exam time, individuals are often striving to review a lot of material and achieve high marks. However, teens with OCD might also be faced with obsessions and compulsions revolving around perfectionism, checking behaviours and fears of lying or cheating. This can increase the stress experienced during their studying. It can also make it extremely challenging to review material properly. And it can lead to feelings of being overwhelmed and hopeless. If those feelings carry over into the testing environment, it can make for an extremely stressful experience. And the outcome might not accurately reflect the knowledge that an individual holds. 

How can we help adolescents and teenagers with OCD during exam time?

As a first step, it is important for teens with OCD and their families to recognize the ways in which their symptoms might emerge during exam time. Any of the following are possible:

  • Spending hours reading and re-reading material in response to intrusive thoughts that “I don’t know this well enough” or “I re-read that incorrectly, I need to read it again” or “It didn’t feel right when I read that paragraph and I must re-read it”
  • Focusing on the need to achieve perfection in all exams. This could sound like “I must get everything right” or “I am a failure if I get anything less that 98% (or another extremely high mark)” or “I will study the material until I know everything perfectly. Anything less is just not good enough”
  • Worrying that they might cheat on an exam or not write the exam in an honest manner. This could sound like, “What if I happen to look at someone’s test and I see all their answers” or “What if I only do well because I am using these practice tests and other people might not have access to them – does this mean I have an unfair advantage?” or “I think my teacher explained something to me that the rest of the class doesn’t know. Does that mean I am cheating?”

These types of thoughts can be expressed by teens with OCD. If a teen or parent notices this, they can recognize that their OCD has heightened during exam time. This awareness is helpful as it allows for an increased understanding within the family of OCD behaviours.

We know that OCD often latches onto areas of our life that are of value to us. Exams and doing well are often very important to individuals. Therefore, it is no surprise that we can expect to see heightened symptoms of OCD emerge. 

What can we do when we recognize our teen is experiencing heightened OCD symptoms during exam time?

Once everyone recognizes that OCD symptoms have heightened, we can take steps to manage it. We must recognize that this is a high stress time. We can take steps to decrease the anxiety of exam writing. We can also help teens with OCD tolerate their intrusive thoughts and lean into the anxiety they are experiencing. 

Here are some helpful strategies for reducing anxiety:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation: this is an excellent strategy to specifically target periods of intense anxiety that individuals experience. This can be done in the morning and evening as a way to unwind one’s muscles and notice areas of tension and relaxation
  • Exercise regularly: get fresh air every day and take meaningful breaks from studying! Exercise can be great for this! Even a walk outside can alter someone’s mood. And pay attention to your surroundings to allow yourself to unhook from difficult thoughts and feelings
  • Eat well: being mindful of eating healthy foods and snacks during exam time is very important. We want to fuel our body in nutritious ways as it builds up our resources for focus and concentration

Here are some ways we can approach intrusive thoughts and rituals:

When our teens with OCD experience obsessions and compulsions, we want them to learn that we don’t have to suppress our intrusive thoughts. And we want to stop engaging in rituals as they only feed our OCD cycle. We can try the following:

  • Recognize your intrusive thoughts for what they are – thoughts. We can lean into these thoughts and not engage in responses to them. Do we have to re-read a paragraph until it feels just right? We don’t have to. We can try and keep reading for meaning instead of feelings of just rightness. We also might need to tolerate the just wrongness of doing things in a different way
  • Setting expectations other than perfection can be important. Allowing oneself to make mistakes – in life and on exams. Embracing the idea that we must tolerate not always achieving perfection. 
  • Knowing that there is also some uncertainty in our actions. While we can recognize that we are not setting out to lie or cheat, we might have more information by going in for extra help. It is important to lean into the uncertainty of our actions and possible outcomes

Also remember to be compassionate. To yourself and your teen with OCD. Exams are challenging and everyone is trying their best!

What are the next steps for my teen with OCD?

Your teen might also express a need to get more support for their OCD. OCD can wax and wane and it is very helpful to have the tools you need when you are experiencing interfering symptoms. 

If your teen is feeling ready to work on their OCD, then please do reach out! We are here to help adolescents and teens with OCD. We have a team of clinicians ready and eager to work with your teen and your family. When someone feels motivated to make a change, it is wonderful and will allow them to jump into the ocean of change!

Reach out to us at Forward Thinking Psychological Services. We are ready to work with you and your loved ones on symptoms of OCD. We will bring you closer to a life that is of value to you. We look forward to hearing from you!