Understanding Teen Stress is Critical


Understanding Teen Stress : Positive or Negative?

Understanding teen stress is critical for parents. A few years ago when I was Executive Director at the Oakley School, I received a phone call from an agitated mother. She informed me that she had just spoken with her teen daughter who was in tears because she had been “so stressed out”  studying for finals.

The mother described her daughter as “stressed to the max.” According to the mother, the daughter had spent finals week staying up late, obsessing over school and cramming to try and perform well on her exams. The mother was worried that her daughter was unable to handle the stress, and wanted to know what I was going to do to make sure her daughter was OK. 

I listened to her concerns and then responded… “You’re welcome…” She was taken aback until I explained that the stress her daughter was experiencing was a positive thing. She was stressed about excelling in school, when a few months earlier she didn’t care about anything. The fact that she wanted to perform in school was a testament to how much she had grown. The mother slowly began to see the rationale for my comment (lucky for me!)

Hans Selye  was a pioneer in understanding stress and it’s effects on people. He determined that there were two types of stress, Distress (negative)  and Eustress (positive). Selye argued that stress, up to a certain point, was actually a very positive process. He theorized that when the stressor become too intense or longstanding, people became less productive. Excessive stress defined, as distress can be detrimental, Eustress or “good stress” helps us be productive and organized and engaged.

How do parents tell the difference? 

Characteristics of Eustress or Positive Stress

  • Motivates, focuses energy
  • Is short-term
  • Is perceived as within our coping abilities
  • Feels exciting
  • Improves performance


In contrast, Distress or Negative Stress, has the following characteristics:

  • Causes anxiety or concern
  • Can be short- or long-term
  • Is perceived as outside of our coping abilities
  • Feels unpleasant
  • Decreases performance
  • Can lead to mental and physical problems


The girl who was cramming was stressed, but she was productive and engaged. Her stress was actually Eustress, not Distress. Too often we view all stress as a negative, yet we often define ourselves (and others) by how we handle a stressful situation. The best athletes manage stress well. Our hero’s are typically defined by navigating a stressful situation in a positive way, and we often feel energized when we persevere through difficulty.

Conversely, we have all had times where distress has been debilitating. It is important to know when this is occurring. If your child is struggling it is likely very stressful and you are probably experiencing some level of distress. By taking action and making decisions to help your child you will not relieve the stress, but you may be able to shift it toward Eustress.

Selye once said, “ Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows.” This is because every person experiences stress differently. Many of the young people we work with have had difficulty coping with stress. Certain stressors that many people can handle as Eustress, can quickly move our students to Distress. Schoolwork, family obligations, sports and work are sometimes overwhelmingly stressful for young people. When this occurs the end result is poor coping and a maladaptive approach because the student is in Distress.

A reputable treatment setting can help give young people the coping skills to navigate their Distress and turn it toward Eustress. A stress free life is not possible. In fact, it would lead us to be unproductive and unmotivated, however, we can try and manage our stress through actively engaging in productive pursuits 

Adolescents and young people are not the only ones who face stress. Parents who are faced with a child who is struggling are in Distress. Making the decision to have your child attend a residential treatment center, or wilderness program or therapeutic boarding school or even a traditional boarding school can be incredibly distressing. Meyer Education and Family Services can help you manage this stress by giving clear, honest answers to some of the really tough questions.