BACKGROUND: How young people cope with stress is an important component of health and well-being since failure to deal with stress is very costly in social and emotional terms. AIM: In this study we examine the relationship between young people's declared failure to cope and the many coping styles that are reported concomitantly. The research questions addressed the extent to which positive and negative coping strategies co-exist in adolescent populations and whether the co-existence of these strategies confounds interpretation of the impact of coping on outcomes. SAMPLE: A sample of 1219 adolescent school students was drawn from a wide range of 11 government and private coeducational schools situated in the three regions of metropolitan Melbourne, Australia. METHODS: All participants completed the General form of the Adolescent Coping Scale in class groupings. Administration was conducted by a teacher who was also a registered psychologist. RESULTS: It was found that young people who were coping less successfully were those utilising more emotion-focused strategies. Further, students' use of emotion and problem-focused strategies was intercorrelated. CONCLUSION: This suggests that failure to cope triggers off increased coping activities of all kinds and that over-use of non-productive strategies interferes with the capacity to use productive coping.