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.

Tend and Befriend

UCLA Professor, Dr. Shelley Taylor, and her colleagues have proposed that females may be less likely to respond to stress with a strong fight or flight response. While all females are capable of showing the fight-or-flight response in certain circumstances, females may be more likely to respond with what Taylor and colleagues call the “tend-and-befriend” response [2, 3, 4]. Females, under stress, are more likely to turn to other females for support and defend each other from perceived threats. Social support helps females manage their response to stress. However, females’ greater tendency to rely on social support may put them in jeopardy in other situations, such as taking a test at school where asking for help from a friend would not be appropriate, but may be viewed as a ploy to get answers from another.
If you suspect that your daughter or one of your female students is struggling with test anxiety, it is important to intervene before the problem gets worse. You can help by working with the school to provide a way for her to learn to relax in the face of stress. Some strategies for helping girls manage their test anxiety include the following:
  • During an exam, allow a students to get up from her desk and walk to the farthest water fountain to regain focus and calm.
  • Teach her to practice deep breathing or “belly breaths” at her desk. For an example, click here.
  • Teach her to use visualization to imagine a peaceful, calming place.
  • These are typically useful in allowing a female student to calm and focus herself during a stressful exam.
Some more general strategies for working with girls:
  • If you want a girl’s attention, you will generally want to use a calm quiet voice which will not cause her to become more upset. 
  • The worst part of this is that it may be hard to discover when a girl is upset as she will be so quiet. The first indication may be when she gets visibly upset such as crying or is unable to answer a simple question. During tend-and-befriend, blood goes to the center of the body away from the muscles and the individual may find it difficult to move. The result is that it may be hard to discover when a girl is upset and the first indication may be when she gets visibly upset or is unable to answer questions.  


This article discussed some of the growing evidence surrounding gender differences in the response to stress. Understanding variations in the physiological and emotional reactions to stress between boys and girls allows parents and teachers to more specifically tailor their responses to boys and girls during times of stress, as well as help them to develop positive coping strategies.
  1. Sax, L. Six Degrees of Separation: What teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences. Educational Horizons, Spring 2006, 190-200.
  2. Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429.
  3. Taylor, S. E. Tend and befriend: Biobehavioral bases of affiliation under stress. (2006). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(6), 273-277.
  4. Taylor, S.E., Burklund, L. J., Eisenberger, N. I., Lehman, B. J., Hilmert, C. J. And Lieberman, M. D. (2008) Neural bases of moderation of cortisol stress responses by psychosocial resources.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 197-211.