Ask Tanya Byron: “I get angry when my school-age daughter won’t revise”

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Tanya Byron is a British psychologist, writer, and media personality, best known for her work as a child therapist on television shows Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways.

Question to Tanya:

My daughter is in Year 8. She’s bright and generally happy with life, and doing well academically. The problem lies with me rather than her. I find it terribly hard not to badger her about exam revision and something about this subject triggers terrible anger for me.

She has exams at the moment — just ordinary school exams, not public exams — and she’ll do fine, I’m sure. She is very relaxed about them and, if it weren’t for me, would do no revision at all.

However, I seem to be turning these relatively unimportant exams into a big source of family stress. I worry about how little she’s doing, ask my friends what their child is doing in comparison, draw up revision timetables, download relevant podcasts for her etc.

And when she gets fed up or tells me that she doesn’t need to revise or that no one else is doing anything (not true) I become so angry that I can’t speak and have to leave the room.

I swing between worrying that I’m far too pushy and not pushy enough, so end up arguing with my daughter over how little she’s doing, then apologising, then arguing again.

Answer from Tanya:

Study after study shows that while some stress and anxiety can sharpen the mind and maximise performance, excessive anxiety can kill it. Your anxiety will make your daughter anxious and so could have a negative impact on academic outcomes while compromising her love of learning.

Anxiety, the fight/flight/freeze response can be experienced physically (feeling sick, headaches, sweating, muscle tension, racing heart, breathlessness), emotionally (fear, helplessness, apathy) and behaviourally (anger, avoidance).

To encourage your daughter positively is to find a way to address your anxiety, which comes from seeing in her your “lazy” approach to learning. It is no bad thing to want our children to learn from our mistakes, but we have to let them make their own mistakes as part of their self-development.

You fear your daughter has a poor work ethic and so nag and get angry with her, which increases her stress and anxiety and the chance that she won’t work; a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. 

You describe a happy girl who is doing well at school and this all sounds promising. However, any regular child of her age who spends long hours at school will not necessarily feel inclined to study more when they could be relaxing. Therefore she sounds very normal.

These tests are not going to define her future career and earning potential, but are markers of her progress. You want her to do well, but she must also be allowed to do less well since this enables her to grasp, before her GCSEs in Year 11, an important life lesson: what you put in, you get out.

However, most importantly, allow her to make her own mistakes and sometimes fail since this is an important aspect of learning and builds emotional intelligence and resilience, qualities that will enable her to be more successful as an adult than the best test scores.

If she doesn’t do as well as she could because she hasn’t worked as efficiently as she could, this will be a useful wake-up call for her to take responsibility for exam preparation.

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