Gender Differences in Response to Stress

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

When girls and boys get upset, they may not respond in the same way. Girls are somewhat more likely to burst into tears while boys are somewhat more likely to hit something or run away. Why do these differences exist? The answer may be more hardwired than you think. 

Fight or Flight

The fight-or-flight stress response is the way the body responds to perceived threats whether it is a threat to life and limb such as an auto accident or whether it is a threat to one’s self-esteem such as a major test. What happens is that the body gets prepared to defend itself from the oncoming danger or to run away. The following physiological changes occur:
  • The heart begins to beat faster to send blood to the muscles and brain and as a result, the blood pressure increases.
  • The person begins to breathe deeply and rapidly. This will supply oxygen so that the body can produce energy from the increased blood sugar. 
  • The pupils of the eyes will widen so that the person can see the danger better.   
Although girls do experience the fight or flight response as well, boys are much more likely to experience an increased activation of this physiological response to perceived stress. In any situation, a boy may react suddenly and his behavior may become an issue when he is faced with what he experiences as a threatening situation. Children need to be taught to manage strong emotions and if no one has shown a boy how to control his response, he may not understand why others don’t like his outbursts. 
Some strategies for helping boys manage their stress response include the following:
  • When excited, encourage your son to run around the edge of a playground or by throwing bean bags at a target. 
  • An older boy will need to be taught how to manage his sudden bursts of emotion. The important thing is to help the boy learn to control this excitement, understanding that the reaction is totally normal and necessary. What should not happen is for a boy to be taught that he should not react at all, but that his reaction should be appropriate to the situation.  On the playground, he can be loud and boisterous, but he needs to use a calmer voice inside. 
  • The only part of the fight-or-flight response that can be controlled voluntarily is breathing. Slowing down breathing facilitates a slowing of other body responses, as well. Yoga breathing is an excellent way to help boys learn to control their physical responses and very young children can be taught to use this method. Make sure that he is not breathing too deeply as he will hyperventilate.
  • Asking a boy to stand to answer a question may actually help some boys to think better. There is growing evidence that the determinants of brain blood flow may be sympathetic in males, and parasympathetic in females [1]. That means that standing up, or going outside into the colder air, may actually improve some boys’ ability to think clearly.
  • If you want a boy’s attention, you may be more likely to get it if you use a louder voice. Not shouting; just a louder voice. Speaking to an upset boy in a very quiet voice may mean that he does not even hear what is said.
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