It's a tense moment for families when exam results arrive. Emotions are running high. It's not just the students who are under pressure. How should parents avoid saying the wrong thing?
1. Not realising whatever you say is going to be wrong.
Always being in the wrong is part of the job description of being a teenager's parent. But when the envelope is opened you need to show the right expression to match the results. Otherwise you face a terrible, emergency, gear-crunching change of direction. Just when you've put on your best sympathy-at-a-funeral face, you realise that you're meant to be celebrating. Those results are... absolutely. We're proud of you. Never doubted you for a second. Punch the air.
2. Not really meaning it.
This is a tough one to get around. You've delivered what you thought was a little gem of supportive parenting. It was so sincere that it more or less came with its own orchestra. It's so empathetic that parts of your head have dissolved into soft focus. But you hit the crash barriers at speed, because you're told: "You don't really mean it. You're just saying it. If you think it's a disaster, just say it."
3. Changing your Facebook status to "gutted".
You know the dangerous territory we're entering. A Facebook mother armed with an iPad and something chilled, makes a stray comment about exam results not going entirely to plan. There's a throwaway remark about the Titanic. It's only intended to be a bit ironic, a little joke between parents. Teenagers might laugh a lot but don't mistake this for a sense of humour. Not about these exams, no way. If you want to destroy my life just tell me to my face.
4. "Why would I be disappointed? This is fantastic news, isn't it?"
Keep that smile more frozen than fish fingers in a polar bear's deep freeze. You have to show you're happy. Those grades look impressive, but don't make the error of expecting unbridled joy. For today's high-pressure teenagers, anything that isn't perfect is a disaster. They may as well scrap their career plans right now. The world has ended. Look at all those blonde triplets jumping on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. They've got an A* in everything. Why haven't I? Keep smiling.
5. "Almost as good as your cousin."
Don't even think about it. The most inflammatory parental response is a comparison to the perfect cousin or sibling, so clever that their results illuminate the entire extended family like a constellation of grade A*s shining in the night sky. This has been winding everyone up since nursery school. Also to be avoided are such morale-boosters as: "Congratulations, you've nearly done as well as that eight-year-old in Hong Kong."
6. "Of course these days they more or less give away A-levels."
You might secretly think this, but keep such careless talk to yourself. This generation can only take the exams put in front of them and they've worked harder than we ever did. Mind you, come to mention it, until 1987, there was a limit on the amount of top grades, so in fact... Stop, there's no going back.
7. "If you were really pleased you would pay for my festival ticket."
Difficult one. Of course, we're pleased about the results. Not so much about the blackmail. And have you seen the price of tickets? I know we said that if you revised really hard and got good results we'd be really pleased. But let's not get carried away. There's always room for improvement, look at your cousin...
8. "We still love you anyway. It isn't that bad, considering."
There are some well-intentioned phrases that are about as supportive as a trap door. File them away with "Not the end of the world", "It could have been worse" and "To be honest, I wasn't really ever sure about that university, even though you've already bought the sweatshirt." You may as well start hand-stitching them a banner with "Loser" written on it.
9. Richard Branson didn't go to university.
Folksy optimism works in animated movies about puppies with special powers, not in a world where teenagers' bad news spreads like a plague from text to Tweet to social networking. Avoid life-affirming success-from-failure stories, especially when someone has just unexpectedly found themselves in a failure-from-success story.
10. Looking slightly wistful when you're meant to sound delighted.
You know it's really good news. Everything has gone well. All the hard work has been worthwhile. But you can't help but feel that twinge of parental nostalgia. And the "twinge" is a lump in the throat the size of a supertanker in a canal. Five minutes ago they were bringing home drawings from primary school and now they're getting exam results at the very end of all their school years. Raise a glass and say nothing.