How to Help Your Anxious Kid Avoid Avoidance Behaviors

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Avoid avoidance? I know, sounds like I missed something there, but stay with me. In the past few weeks, my inbox has been overflowing with questions about helping anxious kids who have a tendency to avoid all possible anxiety triggers. Should parents push kids to “face their fears”? Should they encourage the avoidance because the anxiety seems to “disappear” as long as the child avoids the triggers? What’s a parent to do?

Parenting an anxious child is hard work. Just when you think you have the problem solved (nine night lights to clear up the fear of the dark later), a new trigger emerges. That’s because anxiety isn’t just about the triggers. Irrational fears and intrusive thoughts have a way of snowballing, and kids confront a lot of new information on a daily basis. For a non-anxious child, new information is fun and exciting. For an anxious child, however, new information can lead to new fears.

Add the new fears to the old fears (you can install all the night lights you want, until kids learn to cope with anxiety those Band Aids can come off at any moment!) and you have a big mess of fears.

Avoidance is a common strategy used by anxious kids. Honestly, it’s easy for parents to fall into the trap (been there). When kids avoid their triggers, they tend to appear calm and happy again. The problem is that it won’t last.

What are avoidance behaviors?

Avoidance behaviors are things kids (and by kids I do mean all ages – even the tweens and teens!) do or don’t do to reduce their feelings of anxiety. There are different levels of avoidance. For example, true avoidance behaviors occur when a child goes to great lengths to completely stay away from a trigger. If a child is afraid of reading in front of his classmates, for example, he might either try to stay home “sick” when he has to give a book report or invent reasons to leave the classroom during book report time (I need to see the nurse).

Partial avoidance, sometimes referred to as safety behaviors, are things kids do to try to hide their anxiety. Ever notice a kid who always seems to drop his pencil and disappear from sight the moment the teacher starts calling on kids for answers? That’s avoidance. Safety behaviors help kids feel in control in the moment or help limit exposure to the trigger. Other examples include avoiding eye contact when talking to people, leaving the room frequently, daydreaming to check out and even drinking and drugs in older kids.

While avoidance behaviors might give kids some immediate symptom relief, they don’t help them learn to cope with their triggers. In fact, the fears actually have a tendency to snowball when kids engage in avoidance behaviors.

Take, for example, a child who refuses to go to school due to separation anxiety. It feels good and safe to stay home, so the child engages in negative behaviors to avoid going to school. Over time, as the days add up, the child starts to internalize the message that she can’t go to school. School is scary, overwhelming and just too hard. The more she stays home, the more she believes that she’s can’t possibly cope at school.

Avoidance can actually increase the risk of engaging in negative safety behaviors down the line. Drugs and alcohol are used to dull the feelings of anxiety, particularly for those facing social anxiety.

How can you teach kids to avoid avoidance?

Like all things anxiety related, avoiding avoidance requires time, practice and patience. There will be good days and not-so-good days along the way. Try not to view setbacks as failures when your kids are learning to cope with anxiety. Setbacks are simply a call to review what is and isn’t working so that your child can continue to practice adaptive coping strategies.

***If anxiety impacts your child’s ability to go to school or participate in normal daily activities, call your family doctor for a referral to a mental health professional specializing in children and adolescents. 

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With that in mind, try these five steps to help your child learn to avoid avoidance:

Unpack the triggers.

More often than not, what begins as an intentional avoidance becomes a habit over time. The kid who hides every time a dog is near no longer has to think about avoiding the dog. she just does it. It’s how she copes.

It can take time to help kids unpack their anxiety triggers and identify their avoidance behaviors. When your child is calm, talk about what it means to feel anxious (your heart races, your brain warns you to avoid something, your palms sweat, etc) and what kids of things might cause those feelings. Share your observations of your child. Ask your child if she ever tries to avoid things that make her feel scared or worried.

I always recommend having the child make a “trigger tracker” list. This helps the child gain some control over the feelings of anxiety.

Challenge exaggerations.

Anxiety is fueled by irrational thinking. What might begin as a small worry (did I leave the stove on?) can quickly snowball when intrusive thoughts take over (my house is burning down!) Experiencing a complete lack of control over the trigger can increase those intrusive thoughts. This sends kids into fight or flight mode, and flight is often the easiest option.

Teach your child to challenge exaggerations by using self-talk. Help your child make a list of the intrusive thoughts that tend to snowball, then practice making logical statements instead. When kids learn to pick apart their worries and ground themselves in logical thinking, the intrusive thoughts shrink.

Start small.

It can be tempting to tell a kid to just get back in there and face his fears, but that kind of statement feels paralyzing to a child struggling with anxiety. Anxious kids often feel overwhelmed on a good day – they can’t just “shake it off”.  What they can do is start small and go from there.

If dogs are a huge source of anxiety, for example, start by reading books about dogs. Next, find a pet grooming place that will let your child watch a dog being groomed from behind the glass. After that, find a friend with a very calm and kid friendly dog and pay that dog a visit. You get the drill.

If social anxiety is the problem, start by attending a gathering for 15 minutes then work up to 25 and 35 and so on until larger gatherings no longer feel overwhelming.

Focus on manageable tasks.

One of the most difficult challenges for anxious kids is that once their anxiety is triggered, everything feels huge and overwhelming. Teach your child to break things down into manageable parts. If test anxiety is a problem, help your child learn to study in specific blocks of time with plenty of relaxation breaks and break down the test material to one focus area per study block. When he actually takes the test, have him use a plain piece of paper to block out the section he’s not working on in the moment.

Learning to break things down helps kids feel in control of their triggers.

Practice. Practice. Practice.

All kids are different and no one strategy works for all kids (except deep breathing to calm the feeling of panic – that always works when done correctly), but there are tons of ways to practice confronting triggers.

Mirror, mirror: Have your child role play anxiety producing situations while facing a mirror. The more kids practice confronting their triggers, the more mastery they gain. Join your child to help him work though difficult situations.

Put on a social play: Writing, directing and starring in a play about your own worries can be quite empowering! Encourage the whole family to get in on the action, as directed by the anxious child. Play truly does help children gain mastery over the fears, and this is a great way to get started.

Sing a silly song: As silly as it sounds, rewriting the lyrics to a favorite tune to reflect how you can face your fears really does help. I do this to show my kids that we all have worries and sources of stress, but casting them in a new light can make us feel better.

The Happy Kid Handbook is full of great strategies to help children and families learn to cope with stress and anxiety. Grab your copy today!

Image credit: Pexels

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)