Youth and Stress
For parents and adults who work with youth
Developed by Assistant Extension Professor Leslie A. Forstadt, and Assistant Extension Professor Mitch Mason
All youth experience stress as part of their lives. Most of the time, stress is thought of as negative—as something to be “managed.” The causes of stress, or “stressors,” may include positive as well as negative events, and the physical responses are similar: the body is simply responding to change.
Positive: there are lots of good experiences that can lead to feelings of stress in youth, such as playing in a soccer game, competing in a spelling bee or dog show, or going to the prom. These types of stresses feel exciting and they are generally short-term. They often improve performance by increasing ability to pay attention and focus, as well as creating a surge of positive feelings.
Negative: negative events that may be stressful include experiencing the breakup of a friendship or romantic relationship, receiving a disappointing grade on a test, being bullied, experiencing the divorce of one’s parents, or not getting enough sleep because of worries. These types of stresses can be long- or short-term and may lead to anxiety and depression. In addition, performance can suffer because of distraction and fatigue.1
Our bodies are hard-wired to react. When we experience change and become stressed, our heart rates increase, our appetites decrease, our eyes dilate, and we get prepared for “fight or flight.”
|Emotional signs of stress:
||Physical signs of stress:
When youths are stressed for long periods of time, without opportunities for stress to reduce, there can be long-term health risks. These include anxiety, autoimmune disorders, obesity, and depression. It’s important for youths to have healthy ways to decrease stress.
Different individuals will respond or react differently to the same type of experience, depending on their temperament or personality. As with adults, some youths get very anxious in competitive situations, while others do not. Some youths get very stressed when they have disappointed a friend or an adult; others do not. It may depend on the supportive relationships they have with adults, peers, and siblings. The best way to figure out what is stressful to a youth is to talk about it.2
There are many strategies youths can learn in order to cope with the physical and emotional effects of stress. By learning new ways to respond to stressful events, youths can develop skills to actually reduce the degree of stress they feel in relation to events or experiences.
Developing strategies to relax and sleep well can help reduce the effects of stress.
Stress and sleep are often connected. By talking with youths, you can learn more about how they connect their sleep (or lack thereof) with their stress. Sometimes young people will sleep more when they’re stressed, and sometimes they’ll sleep less. Increased sleep may be a sign of depression, and decreased sleep may be a sign of anxiety.
Sleep is very important in the brain development of young people. Their brains continue to develop until they reach their 20s—particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps with decision-making. During sleep, the body goes through many cycles that promote healing, development, learning, memory, the functioning of the immune system, and emotional regulation. In other words, insufficient sleep has an impact on memory, decision-making, and emotion.
Recommended hours of sleep by age:
|Children 3–6 years||10–12 hrs|
|6–9 years||10 hrs|
|9–12 years||9 hrs|
Keep in mind that adults provide role models, whether good or bad, for how to respond to stress and how to develop coping strategies. Youth learn through their everyday experiences, and it is easier to teach them how to handle stress if they have seen it successfully modeled by the adults in their lives day to day. Peers are good sympathizers, but it often takes an adult perspective to begin to plan how to make changes for the better. In addition, young people need help to learn problem-solving skills. Sorting out the issues, setting goals, and making plans to move forward are skills that can be taught and practiced.
Research with youths and adults has shown that adults often do not understand the stresses that youths are facing, or do not understand which stressors are the most significant to youth. This is why it’s important to ask questions and listen well, and when youths ask, help them plan to make changes that will improve the situation.6
You are a role model. The way you handle the stressors in your life can be very educational for the youths around you. If you can sort out problems, not be overly stressed, and make plans to move forward, you can teach these skills.4 Youths will benefit, and develop skills for problem-solving and handling future stressors that come their way!
Assistant Extension Professor Kristy Ouellette and Associate Extension Professor Debra Kantor
1 Joyce Walker, “Adolescent Stress and Depression,” Teens in Distress Series (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development, 2002). http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/youthdevelopment/da3083.html
2 L. S. Kim, I.N. Sandler, and J. Tein, “Locus of control as a stress moderator and mediator in children of divorce,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 25(2): 145–155.
3 National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Putting Positive Youth Development Into Practice: A Resource Guide(North Bethesda: National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, 2007). ncfy.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/PosYthDevel.pdf.
5 Committee on Community-Level Programs for Youth, National Research Council, and Institute of Medicine Community Programs to Promote Youth Development, ed. Jacquelynne Eccles and Jennifer Appleton Gootman (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2002)
6 Walker, “Adolescent Stress and Depression.”
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Image Description: Stressed youth; photo by Edwin Remsberg