Whilst adults deal with stress by solving problems or seeking support and infants usually relieve stress by crying, turning their heads or maintaining eye contact, a human development expert from Missouri University has identified, in a new study, how adolescents develop personalities and how coping habits affect their behaviors toward others.

Gustavo Carlo, the Millsap Professor of Diversity in the MU Department of Human Development and Family Studies said:

“We’re each born with some personality tendencies; for example, we see that babies are fussy or calm. Those characteristics can change over time as people experience certain events or as a result of their parents, peers or communities. At the same time, as we get older, our personalities become more stable.”

Carlo and his team conducted a survey involving 1,557 students between the age of 12 to 15 years in Valencia, Spain, to measure various behaviors, including their feelings toward others, their past pro-social and physically aggressive behaviors, as well as their emotional stability and how they deal with stress situations.

They discovered that empathetic youths were more likely to use problem-focused coping in order to reduce or eliminate the source of the stress and that they were more likely to perform pro-social behaviors for benefiting others like helping friends with problems, donating money or volunteering. In contrast, youths who were emotionally unstable and impulsive tended to rely more on emotion-focused coping tactics including avoidance or distraction, and also more frequently displayed signs of aggression.

Carlo explained:

“Empathetic kids are generally very good at regulating their emotions and tend not to lose their tempers. When you’re good at regulating your emotions, you’re less concerned about yourself and more considerate of other people. On the other hand, impulsive children are more self-focused and have difficulty engaging in problem-focused coping.”

He continued saying that by teaching youths various ways of handling stress will help them to identify the best coping techniques based on unique situations. Whilst in some cases people use both techniques to cope with stress, i.e. emotional and problem-focused methods, others are doing well with just one. For instance, children may cope better by using emotion-focused strategies when their parents get divorced as they are unable to change these situations, whilst planning ahead to study for exams or to complete homework is a problem-focused coping method that can help youths to effectively ease academic stress.

Carlo concludes: “Sometimes we get stuck dealing with stress in one way because it was successful in the past; that coping style may not be effective with other stressors and in other situations. There is more than one way to cope in situations, and people need to know when to apply which coping mechanisms.”

Written by Grace Rattue