Sometimes exams are not a cause for celebration — and many teens can feel very alone, isolated and self-loathing when reports come out. That’s a lot of pressure for a teen who may not have passed their exams or may not have done as well as they expected.
"We all fear failure.
“We live in a world where performance is rewarded and judgements are made based on what we do and how well we do it,” says South African psychologist Lee-Ann Hartman.
Students fear the negative results of failure, like rejection by peers, angry parents, self-pity and stress.
The irony is that failure is a normal — and necessary — part of life. We will all fail at some point. But for some students, failure is a tipping point, when added to any other problems they may be experiencing.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), 9.5% of teen deaths in South Africa are caused by suicide. One of the triggers could be exam disappointment.
“There are children who have undiagnosed depression or who undergo a trauma or an experience that makes them more vulnerable, and this can be the final stress that causes them to commit suicide or use drugs,” says SADAG’s Dessy Tzoneva.
While we tend to blame suicide on exam results, there is usually a range of things that could result in a teen taking their own life.
“We need to remember that we all have different strengths,” says Hartman. “What one sibling achieves may not be what their younger sibling can do well — but teachers, parents and students themselves often judge themselves according to prior standards.”
Disappointment is not reserved for students who don’t pass. SADAG says it’s important to remember that for students who set very high goals for themselves or are used to ’perfection’, not reaching their desired level can be just as devastating.
“For a student used to getting straight A’s, a C is a failure and self-esteem and confidence can go for a serious tumble,” says Tzoneva.
“Failing a grade, failing matric or failing at university can feel like very public humiliation,” says school counsellor, Pamela. “Students often feel like everyone is laughing at them and judging them to be failures.”
Social isolation and peer rejection (”My friends laughed at me and said they weren’t going to be my friends anymore because I was stupid,” says Lebo), not having friends in the grade you’re repeating, teachers’ negative perceptions and comments (”I was told by one teacher that I should be getting 100% because I’ve done the work already,” says one student), feeling demotivated, and the very real issue of finances can leave students feeling hopeless and depressed.
For matriculants, the focus on pass rates and education standards, getting university exemption and the space and opportunity to attend tertiary education, the high rate of unemployment, domestic abuse, bullying and the state of the economy all add up to a sometimes lethal mix.
SADAG runs a counselling helpline that is open 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm. Concerned parents, teachers or peers can contact a SADAG counsellor toll-free on 0800 21 22 23 or 0800 12 13 14, or SMS 31393.
“If you did not perform as well in your exams as you had expected, do not give up,” says Tzoneva. “Talk about how you’re feeling. If you are worried about a loved one — get help sooner rather than later.”
“Many students and parents aren’t aware of their options and it’s vital that they get all the facts and explore what is available before giving up,” says Pamela. Don’t jump to conclusions or panic — especially not before results are out.
Failing a grade never has to be the end of the road!
A word of caution from SADAG is to get results from the school and speak to the school principal, teachers or counsellor about the possibility of writing a supplementary exam, applying for a remark, moving to an FET college or enrolling in a bridging course at a university.
“Explore all your options and work with someone you trust like a counsellor, a coach, a friend or parent,” says Pamela.
Exams are important but no exam is life or death. It’s normal to feel down and angry and disappointed if you don’t do as well as you wanted, but it doesn’t have to be the end of your world.
SADAG has some tips on how to cope with disappointment or failure and move forward with hope and dignity:
Acknowledge your failures — don’t fear them. We can learn a lot on the path to success. Even failing a course at university or redoing matric is a way to learn about yourself and ways to achieve success. “And remember that in 10 years’ time, no one will focus on how you did in matric or whether you failed your first year!” says Tzoneva. No one is going to look critically on you because once-upon-a-time you didn’t pass.
See it as a learning curve — sometimes to know what is right, you need to know what is wrong. “Failure is often one of the greatest gifts we can get because we learn so much,” says Hartman.
If you fail or are disappointed in your results, find out why. And take the advice and guidance you get from teachers and peers. “I failed my first year at university and it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” says Kopano. “I was doing a course I wasn’t made for, it just wasn’t me — but when I failed, I listened to my lecturers and did my research. Now I’m enrolled in a course I love.”
Take pride in your achievements and your disappointments. We all have strengths and we can learn from our experiences and build up our weak points. Learning about you, how you cope with life, is a strength that you will have forever.
Always believe in yourself. No one is perfect. There is always room for improvement. People have achieved incredible things because they never gave up on themselves and learnt from every experience they had. “Change what you do and how you do it — or you’ll always get the same results,” says second year student, Siya.
Needing help and not asking for it is the only 'big' mistake you’ll make. We all need help from time to time — there will always be things that we’re not great at or things that someone else understands better than we do. Speak up and ask for help when you need it!