Most of us experience anxiety. It’s a normal reaction whenever we anticipate what we perceive to be a dangerous or stressful situation. However, for people with anxiety disorders, the constant feelings of worry, panic, and helplessness can take over their lives, making them struggle to carry out even the most mundane tasks.
For teens with severe anxiety, life can get a little complicated as they may end up developing avoidance behaviors that prohibit them from normal function. Avoidance behaviors are simply those actions that individuals dealing with anxiety or panic take to escape distressing experiences or to avoid facing difficult situations, thoughts or feelings.
For instance, let’s say your teen is taking a certain class and they’re meant to give a presentation as part of their assessment. If your teen is struggling with anxiety, they might decide to skip or avoid the class altogether, failing the class as a result.
Alternatively, your teen’s anxiety might be triggered by social situations. They might be invited to a party but decide not to go because of their anxiety over what might happen, how they or others might behave, or any number of other distressing situations that might occur. If they do decide to attend the party, they might sit in a corner by themselves, stand by the door, escape to the bathroom, etc.
As such, avoidance behaviors can have a negative impact on a teen’s school or social life and put a considerable strain on their relationships with friends and family.
There are 3 common forms of avoidance behaviors:
- Avoidance – These behaviors involve the teen completely avoiding the feared situation. For instance, skipping class to avoid making a presentation.
- Escape – If the teen can’t avoid the situation completely, they might resort to escape behaviors to avoid dealing with it, like leaving class early before the presentation begins, or in case of attending a party, hiding out in the restroom instead of mingling with others.
- Partial avoidance – If both escape and avoidance are impossible, the teenager might resort to safety behaviors to help them alleviate feelings of anxiety while controlling how they experience the situation, e.g., avoiding eye contact and keeping their voice low when making a presentation or wearing plain clothes to avoid drawing attention at a party.
Effects of Avoidance Behaviors
Unfortunately for individuals struggling with anxiety, avoidance behaviors don’t help. They are just a way to survive and try to cope with distressing situations without really addressing the underlying issues.
Avoidance behaviors can lead to:
A restricted life.
Teens who keep resorting to avoidance behaviors eventually end up depriving themselves of great experiences and connections in life. The fear of a potential threat takes over their lives and they end up doing whatever they can to avoid these perceived threats. In the process they fail to live life to the fullest as they miss out on making new friends, going on new adventures and trying out new things.
Reliance on avoidance behaviors only serves to reinforce anxiety-inducing thoughts and feelings. These habits prevent the teen from learning and gathering the evidence necessary to dispel their wrong beliefs about the social situations they strive to avoid. For instance, if the teen keeps avoiding making presentations in class, they never get the exposure needed to learn that presentations can go well if they practice and prepare.
By escaping or avoiding what they consider dangerous situations, teens with anxiety never learn to conquer their fears. While avoidance behaviors might produce short-term relief, in the long-term they increase the symptoms of anxiety. The next time the teen needs to face the same situation, they’ll feel even less confident of themselves and more anxious, thanks to having avoided it in the past. This only keeps the vicious cycle of anxiety going.
Reducing Anxiety- Related Avoidance Behaviors
To break free of their anxiety, teens have to learn to face their fears. For this to be effective, it needs to be done slowly but continuously.
If your teen is using avoidance behaviors to escape certain situations, good communication between the two of you can help you both understand why those situations make them anxious. Discussing these situations can also help you find a way to help your teen deal with the underlying anxiety.
Instead of avoiding anxiety-inducing situations, encourage them to slowly face them. In case of class presentations, they can start by making a presentation in front of you first, then slowly build to presenting in front of the family and a group of friends and so on until they work up to making a presentation in class.
Help them learn to recognize when their anxiety is building up and work together to find ways to cope with it. Deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises are particularly helpful. Additionally, getting professional help can also help your teen conquer their anxiety and break free of their reliance on avoidance behaviors.
Cuncic, A. (2018). Safety Behaviors That Maintain Social Anxiety. Verywellmind. Retrieved on March 16, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-safety-behaviors-that-maintain-social-anxiety-3024885
Selby, E.A. Ph.D. (2010). Avoidance of Anxiety as Self-Sabotage: How Running Away Can Bite You in the Behind. Psychology Today. Retrieved on March 16, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/overcoming-self-sabotage/201005/avoidance-anxiety-self-sabotage-how-running-away-can-bite-you
Anxiety – reversing the vicious cycle. (n.d.). Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Anxiety-reversing-the-vicious-cycle