15/08/2018 06:01 BST | Updated 23/08/2018 10:01 BST

GCSE Results Day 2018: What To Do If Your Child Doesn’t Get The Grades They Hoped For

'This is about their life, not yours, so let them walk their own path.'

Results day can bring hope and excitement, but for thousands of children they can also spell disappointment. If your teenager doesn’t get the results they were expecting, practical and emotional help from a parent can make all the difference.

“Exams and the lead up to results are a really stressful time for young people,” Jo Hardy, head of parent services at youth mental health charity YoungMinds, tells HuffPost UK. “Because of the pressure to achieve academically it can be difficult for a young person if they don’t get the grades they’d hoped for or if their results have an impact on the future that they’d wanted to pursue.”

Watching your child go through this can be difficult as a parent, you may worry about saying the wrong thing or question how much power and knowledge you have to help them through this period. We spoke to experts and parents to get advice on how to navigate a potentially tricky situation.

Before you collect results

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If you can, making a plan and having some conversations in advance of collecting results is helpful, says Dr Claire Halsey, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert.

If there’s a chance it might be bad news, spend some time gathering the relevant numbers for the school, first choice colleges if it’s GCSE results, or any universities your child might want to approach about clearing places, if they are getting A-Level results. Find out what time their school will be open to offer support to students and parents.

“Parents might not tell the child they are doing this because it’s a bit of a vote of no confidence, but I would encourage honesty,” says Halsey, “because then you’re saying ‘I know you’ve done your best, but with the best will in the world things don’t always got to plan, or you might change your mind about what you want. So let’s have all the phone numbers all laid out ready so we know. We love you no matter what.’”

Try to establish how and when your child plans to tell you about their results. “I’ve personally been allowed to sit in the car in the school car park and wait - not to go in,” says Halsey. ”Some kids will want parents there in advance, some won’t. So ask: ‘Can I come with you? I don’t want to embarrass you. How will you communicate your results to me?’”

Sophie Graham, careers adviser at the Exam Results Helpline, points out some schools and colleges may provide the option for students to access their results online, before seeing their friends face-to-face. “So simply having the necessary login details ready to do this can prevent any morning mayhem,” she says. 

Have a solid idea of the options out there, and of the clearing process if your child has been applying to university. Some good websites for careers information include National Careers Service’s job profile site – which lays out all the different ways your child can reach their chosen career.

There’s also Get In Go Far – the official website for information on apprenticeships. “Many employers now offer apprenticeships, which also offer day release for teens and 20-somethings to study degrees right up to master’s level,” says Siobhan Freegard, founder of parenting site ChannelMum.com.

“And even better, you don’t pay a penny so your child gets on the job experience, a wage and a degree - while grads are coming out of uni in debt and without the work experience.”

After getting bad news

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If the results fall short of what they were expecting, there are three things children need to hear from parents, explains parenting expert Oona Alexander.

“One is that they are loved completely, whatever happens; two is that they are understood completely in their disappointment; and three that they are powerful and have options.

“Parents tend to say ‘love you’ but it’s important to tell children, at this vulnerable moment, that your love for them is unconditional, whatever they get - whether they get into Oxford or they end up on the streets - and that this will never ever change. Parents know this but children don’t often hear it, so really take them aside and say it.”

If they are disappointed, it’s then important that parents allow time for those difficult feelings to be felt and heard and understood - rather than dismissing them and moving on too quickly to trying to fix things.

“Parents don’t want their children to suffer so it can be easy to go too quickly into problem solving and trying to make the problem seem not too bad,” says Alexander. “But this can give a subtle message that those feelings are not important, which can create distance.

“Say things like: ‘That’s really awful, I get that that’s a real disappointment for you, I hear how sad you are feeling and how this upsets your plans, after all the work you did.’”

If you need to, create a distraction, suggests Freegard of ChannelMum.com: “Get them off social media, go out for the day, do something fun as a family to take their mind off the situation. Show them the world still goes on. Discussions about the future can wait until they have had time to sleep and digest the news.”

Hardy from YoungMinds adds: “Try to work with them when they’re ready to get excited about new or alternative options.” 

Taking the next steps

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When it comes to moving forwards, you and your child can appeal GCSE and A-Level results here - but be aware the grade can go down as well as up.

The first stop is to ask their school to ‘request a review’ and if you are still not satisfied, you can go to The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). For clearing, visit the Ucas site - and move fast as places fill up quickly.

Parents and students can also call the Exam Results Helpline on 0800 100 900, says Graham, who is a careers adviser there: “When you call, the helpline’s careers advisers will chat through your situation and work with you to develop a plan that’s right for your teenager. The Exam Results Helpline is a free service and open 8am to 10pm, seven days a week.”

It is best if the child can speak to the school, college or university directly and parents simply help to facilitate this. Schools are well-equipped to help, says Halsey: “I think schools are incredibly good about supporting pupils in general to take next steps if they didn’t get into whatever course that they wanted to get into, particularly if it’s A-Levels and they wanted to get into a university.

“Teachers are very sympathetic. People have bad days, the wrong question comes up, time runs out, there’s a host of reasons why sometimes children don’t get the results that teachers know they could achieve.”

A parent should help but let their child explore the options themselves, Alexander adds. “Leave space consciously for them to generate ideas because this will help them feel powerful in a vulnerable situation - to realise that all is not lost. ‘What else is possible?’ Is a good question is ask.”

Danuta Tomasz, assistant director of education for private school group Cognita Schools, says there’s a practical reason for parents to stand back when A-Level results and universities are concerned, too.

“The advice is for parents not to get involved,” she says. “Admissions tutors prefer to talk to the students directly, for lots of reasons - one is because they are 18 and an adult, so they should be able to pick up the phone and make these calls, but more practically, it’s fast moving and they want to make quick decisions to fill empty places up, and a parent can be an intermediary and that just slows the whole thing down.”

Talking to friends and other parents

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If they are embarrassed about their results, talking to their peers could be hard. It could be good to rehearse this in advance, says Halsey.

“Talk through how you are going to frame it to their friends, and say don’t worry - they will have done poorly in one section or other, nobody’s perfect.”

Freegard adds: “Real friends should support not mock, but if your child falls short of their friend’s grades then they will feel embarrassed. Encourage your child to be confident in their choices. If they are retaking, they can say: ‘Yes, it wasn’t what I wanted this time but life is a marathon, not a sprint, so I will get what I want need next time.’

“If they’ve decided on a non-academic route, point to the dozens of top entrepreneurs who barely have a qualification between them such as Richard Branson, Dragon’s Den start Deborah Meaden, Dame Vivienne Westwood and jeweller Laurence Graff who is worth £2bn.”

It’s also important not to share your child’s results with parents of their peers without their permission, says Halsey: “It’s their information to share or to give you permission to share.”

Don’t forget to look after yourself

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Most importantly, make sure you don’t lose hope yourself - talk to friends or family if you are disheartened yourself.

Remember your own experience when you were young, says Freegard: “Think back to when you were doing exams - the pressure and weight of expectation is a lot for young shoulders to bear. This is about their life, not yours, so let them walk their own path in life. You may feel down but it isn’t helpful and will really hurt your child at a time when they are struggling.

“Instead, get educated yourself about modern career paths. Most parents tend to assume going to uni is the best route into work but this is no longer true. The world of work is changing fast so experience now counts for as much - if not more than - a degree.”

Correction: This article was amended to correct a misattributed quote.