Bulletin #4429, Youth and Stress

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For parents and adults who work with youth

Developed by Assistant Extension Professor Leslie A. Forstadt, and Assistant Extension Professor Mitch Mason, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

For information about UMaine Extension programs and resources, visit extension.umaine.edu.
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Table of Contents

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.

Types of Stressors

Stressed youth; photo by Edwin Remsberg

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

Symptoms of Stress

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 stressPhysical signs of stress
  • depression
  • moodiness
  • lack of (or inability to) sleep
  • oversleeping
  • lack of motivation
  • fighting or lashing out
  • tightness in chest
  • tiredness
  • headache
  • muscle tension
  • “butterflies” in the stomach

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.

The same experience can stress one youth but not another

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

Talking with Youths about Stressors

  • Just listen.
    You might feel that you need to have a solution to offer, but you don’t. It’s enough to listen. Youths may not have many people with whom they can speak openly, and sometimes they may just need to let things out, the way we all do. Using questions such as “can you tell me more about . . . ?” or “what did you do after . . . ?” shows that you are listening. Rather than sharing advice and opinions, use your own experience as an example.3
  • Express empathy and warmth.
    Be understanding; be real; let them know you have been there. Come from a place of empathy rather than expertise.
  • Support self-efficacy.
    Support their ability to problem-solve and cope with changes. Resiliency is an important life skill for youths. It is also important that they feel they are in control of what happens to them, and that they can be responsible. They’re learning that their actions and decisions can have a big impact on what happens in their lives.
  • Create opportunities for conversation
    Certain situations are conducive to conversation, such as driving in the car, or preparing for a meeting or a meal with someone. It can be easier for young people to open up when they’re engaged in an activity and when there isn’t the pressure of direct eye contact. Be up-front with youths about your interest and willingness to talk when they need to.4
  • Use open-ended questions.
    Avoid questions that lead to yes/no or one-word answers. Some youths might appear to like yes/no questions, but that won’t get you very far! Instead, try questions that begin with “what would you do if . . . ?,” “tell me about . . . ,” or “how do you think . . . ?”
  • Maintain confidentiality.
    Trust is very important, and if you’ve earned the trust of a youth, it should be honored. If a youth tells you something in confidence and it does not violate a safety issue, keep it to yourself. If there is a safety issue involved, talk with the youth about what you can do together to remedy the situation. If you have questions as to what could be a safety issue, ask a 4-H leader, school counselor, nurse, or teacher.
  • Keep an open mind.
    Even if you find his or her words or stories shocking, try not to judge a youth who is willing to share with you. There are many things that can lead to stress for a youth. Some may seem silly, and some may make you angry, but you need to keep listening and follow the youth’s lead.5

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.

Stress Reducers

Long, slow inhales and exhales, with a focus only on the breath, can distract the mind. The purpose of this skill is to try to focus on something other than the thoughts that might be producing anxiety.

Laughter increases positive hormones, and is contagious. Talk with youths about what makes them laugh, and how to find ways to laugh each day.

Talking with friends, family, or other caring adults is a positive way to release stress. It also teaches youths that they don’t have to keep their stresses to themselves. When people listen, it helps.

Healthy eating
Eating healthy snacks and meals during times of stress supports the body in healing and recovery.

Physical activity
Healthy exercise (30 to 60 minutes a day) helps reduce stress, and can decrease the amount of stress hormones in the body during and after exercise. Types of physical activity effective for stress reduction include activities such as running, yoga, dancing, walking, and lifting weights.

The amount of sleep youths need varies by age, but research shows that most youths do not get as much sleep as they need to keep up with their brain development. Combined with additional needs for sleep created by athletics as well as the demands of school and life, sleep is very important. Talk with youths about their caffeine intake, because caffeine can interfere with their ability to sleep, as well as their quality of sleep.

D. Everson and L. Healey. “Developing Mindfulness: Turning off the Autopilot” (webinar, National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 26, 2011).

Sleep Matters!

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 hours
  • 6–9 years: 10 hours
  • 9–12 years: 9 hours
  • Teens: 9 hours

Why Adults Matter

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!

Special thanks to the following reviewers:

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). www.extension.umn.edu/youth/research/youth-issues/adolescent-stress-and-depression/

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.

4 Ibid.

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.”

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2012

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