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How best to support your teen in the face of unexpected GCSE results.

News is in, the 2020 GCSE and A level students’ grades will be the higher of the teacher estimates or the Ofqual prediction. But does this mean that everything is now ok? Probably not for everyone.

Waiting for your results is always a nail-biting experience. You might have worked hard and hoping for top grades. Or you could be anxious that you might not have done enough. There’s a lot riding on GCSE exam results for many of our young people. However, anxiety levels this year have been compounded by COVID, the fact that UK students didn’t sit formal exams, and then uncertainty about how those grades will be calculated.

This whole situation is made worse by the fact that this is entirely unprecedented. You can’t coach your child as to what is best or what might happen. No one has ever been in this situation before. And that can be quite an isolating feeling for our young people.

Uncharted waters.

We talked to Dr Dominique Thompson, author of the best-selling ‘How to Grow a Grown Up’ to get her expert views. In this article she shares how parents can best handle any anxieties their teens might experience on results day.

Dr Thompson agrees: this is a particularly difficult year for young people.

“The problem is that we’re in a year where your teacher, parent or big brother can not give you some helpful advice based on what they have seen before.”

On the plus side she tells us that ‘the good thing here is that the entire country is up in arms about it. People are sympathetic.’

Don’t panic.

There have been incredible levels of media coverage since the Scotland results were published on 4th August. In Scotland we saw the defence of the approach to use an algorithm to ‘normalise’ results quickly turn to repealing the process. And now the whole of the UK has followed suit in a U-turn. As it stands, all A Level and GCSE students will have their grades based on the original teacher assessment. (Unless the Ofqual prediction was higher, the student will instead receive that.)

This will be welcome news for many GCSE and A level students. But still there will be many who had yet to hit their stride when it came to working towards their exams. As a result, some might still feel aggrieved, frustrated or let down.

In situations where a student hasn’t got the GCSE grades they were hoping for, Dr Thompson explained that you have to be careful of two possible reactions: catastrophising and impulsivity.


A poor GCSE result can go very quickly to the worst-case scenario. As a parent you need to help them see that it isn’t.

You have to know that they can and will go to this stage, even if they don’t typically react like this. We’ve seen it in the headlines such as: ‘You’ve ruined my life‘.

“These make good headlines, but it is catastrophising”.

The very nature of attention-grabbing headlines and stories has made it normal to rush to these extremes.


This can often follow the sense of catastrophe: it’s all over, so I’m going to… It could be as simple as a social media post that they’ll regret or as extreme as self-harm.

In moments of apparent crisis it often takes experience to remain calm and cool. And a great number of adults don’t do it well either. So, it’s hardly surprising then that our young people might not make sound decisions

Dom’s 7 steps

Dr Thompson talked us through the things that parents should watch out for, and what they can do to be a genuine support.

  1. Don’t dismiss their reality. This is how your teen feels. It is valid, even if it feels extreme to you. Telling them it isn’t the end of the world isn’t helpful.
  2. Don’t rush in to try to fix things. The role we take on as parents is to protect and shield our children, as so it is quite natural to be up in arms and put things right. You can help, but don’t go straight in.
  3. Give them space to process. It is important not to leave them alone and stew, but don’t crowd them with your own thoughts. Give them time to come to grips with what’s happening.
  4. Find out what outcome they want. This is about them and their lives, and not your aspirations for them. Be alongside the young person and perhaps encourage them to make a list of what they want to happen next.
  5. Sympathise and empathise. Along side the practical aspects that you might be able to support with, it’s important to let them know you understand and appreciate how they are feeling.
  6. Be explicitly available and open. Make sure that they know you’re open to talking about anything and everything – they might call on another support network, but knowing you are there is important.
  7. Stay informed with what’s happening. Things are changing all the time. Stay up to date, with information from school or the news. But don’t feel that you need to take on the system. Your school will have a support system in place and be able to give advice. Similarly, we will do our best to let you know – but your teachers are best placed to talk to your individual circumstances.

Life is wiggly

It is incredibly rare – if not entirely impossible – that someone will map out their path and not get an unexpected twist or turn along the way. It is important that your young person knows that the path being different to what they expected might not be a bad thing.

Sharing experiences of when times have gone wrong – or at least not ‘according to plan’ – can be a useful way to help keep perspective.

However, Dr Thompson advises being judicious with examples.

“It’s a really useful thing to do – at the right moment.”

Got the t-shirt

Again, be sympathetic to the GCSE results situation. You don’t want to detract from the anguish that they might be feeling to make the story about you. Perhaps, when things are a bit more relaxed, share a personal experience of when things changed from the plan, but went ok in the end.

Your child is highly likely to see through any attempt to simply make them feel better. And your good intentions might backfire.

Alternatively, Dr Thompson suggests using celebrity case studies. Someone like Messi. Diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency aged 11, he went on to be one of the best footballers of his generation. There are countless stories of celebrities who have overcome adversity or changed approach. Look to find something relatable, however pointing out that Steve Jobs was a college drop out might not trigger the desired outcomes!

It will be ok.

We know that these young people will come through this. We know that everything will be fine. We also know that poor GCSE results is unlikely to be the worst set back that they will suffer in their lives. However, given limited life experience, your teen may not yet fully believe this. It’s important that we don’t ignore their concerns. Equally we shouldn’t allow them to become inflated. Helping them through this adversity, building their resilience and preparing them for their next steps is what every parent needs to be doing. The good news is, while you might not be an educator or careers, you are an expert in your child. With time, patience and understanding your child will get through this. And flourish!

If you’d like to find our more, why not take a listen to Dominique on our first ever Podcast. There she talks frankly about anxiety in teens, perfectionism and the fear of failure.   


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