What exactly is teen avoidance behavior? It’s more complicated than your teen trying to get out of something they don’t want to do. Avoidance behavior in teens is typically closely associated with anxiety disorder.
Specifically, teenage avoidance behaviors—also called avoidance coping—refers to ways of behaving that are motivated by the desire to avoid certain thoughts or feelings. Avoidance behavior might include avoiding places or situations, such as school or social events. Moreover, it might refer to avoiding certain thoughts that create discomfort or even panic.
At its most extreme, such behavior is classified as avoidant personality disorder. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2.5 percent of the adult population in the United States suffers from avoidant personality disorder.
Examples of Avoidance Behavior
Teens may avoid unwanted situations or feelings in several ways. First, they may show avoidant behavior by refusing to do something. They might avoid difficult conversations or other social situations. Furthermore, they might try to avoid leaving home as much as possible.
Second, avoidance coping mechanisms can take the form of doing something else in order to escape or distract from the unwanted feelings. For example, they might wash their hands excessively in order to avoid anxiety about germs. Or they might count calories obsessively in an attempt to avoid worrying about weight. Therefore, both eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder may involve avoidance behaviors.
However, avoidance behaviors are not effective ways to control one’s thoughts or life. In fact, they typically end up creating more anxiety rather than less. That’s because avoidance behaviors are ways of putting a Band-Aid on the problem rather than addressing it head-on.
Avoidance Behavior in School
School avoidance is one of the more common avoidance behaviors among teenagers. As a result, teen school avoidance typically increases during middle school and junior high school.
Usually, teens try to avoid school by complaining about physical issues—they tell their parents they don’t feel well enough to go to school.
Teens may feel anxiety about school for a number of reasons. Therefore, they may try to avoid school as often as possible. These reasons include the following:
- Excessive worries about academic performance
- Social pressures at school
- Bullying or gang activities at school
- Something unrelated to school, such as a divorce, death, or illness in the family, that triggers increased anxiety in general.
Teens may also show avoidance behavior in school. Specifically, they may avoid participating in class, interacting with peers, and joining sports teams or extracurricular activities. This avoidance behavior is a continued attempt to steer clear of anything that produces anxiety.
Teen Task Avoidance Behavior
Task avoidance is another common avoidance behavior in teens. Again, task avoidance is not just about trying to get out of doing something. Moreover, it’s not about being lazy.
Rather, children and teens often avoid taking on new or challenging tasks as a result of anxiety. Therefore, the underlying causes of such anxiety include:
- Fear of failure: Teens who tend to avoid challenging tasks often lack confidence and self-esteem, so they don’t trust themselves to succeed.
- Anxiety about criticism: Adolescents are often concerned that parents, teachers, or other authority figures will judge their attempts negatively.
- Lack of motivation: In some cases, teens may find a task boring or meaningless, or they may be too depressed or anxious to exert energy to complete the task.
- Avoiding competition: Some teens may be very anxious about having their performance or achievements compared to those of their peers, particularly if a parent or other role model is the one doing the comparing.
Avoidant Personality Disorder
While children and teens may exhibit avoidant behavior, but that does not necessarily mean that they have a personality disorder. Rather, the avoidant behavior is often the result of anxiety issues.
However, avoidant personality disorder (APD) is an actual mental health diagnosis. Typically, this disorder is not diagnosed in children or teens, as it may be difficult to tell the difference between avoidant personality disorder and shyness, anxiety, social discomfort, or fear of strangers.
Although avoidant behavior typically starts in infancy or early childhood, many people who are shy tend to grow out of this behavior. On the contrary, people who develop avoidant personality disorder become increasingly shy and reserved as they enter their teens.
There is no clear cause of APD. Genetics, family-system issues, and environmental factors may all play a role. However, there are risk factors for avoidant personality disorder.
Risk Factors for APD
- Family history of personality disorders or other mental illness
- Abusive, unstable, or chaotic family life during childhood
- Diagnosis of childhood conduct disorder
- Abnormal brain chemistry and structure
Symptoms of Avoidant Personality Disorder
There are also a number of consistent symptoms of APD. These include the following.
- Avoiding work activities or refusing job offers due to fears of criticism or failure
- Feeling severely awkward or inhibited in social situations, as a result of low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy
- Preoccupation with one’s own flaws or inferiority
- Inability to form close relationships for fear of rejection
- Extreme sensitivity to negative criticism and rejection; constantly trying to tell how others are reacting to them
- Refusal to try new or challenging things out of concern for being ashamed or embarrassed
- Difficult interacting with others on a daily basis, leading to avoidance of activities that involve socializing.
Teen Substance Abuse and Avoidant Behavior
Teens who exhibit anxious-avoidant behavior are often in emotional pain and discomfort. As a result, they may be drawn to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate.
Additionally, teens may use substances as a way to feel less socially inhibited at school or parties. Therefore, such teens are at an increased risk of substance abuse.
Moreover, people with APD sometimes begin using drugs and alcohol in order to deal with everyday activities, such as talking with people in a store or going out to dinner. Furthermore, they may feel so isolated and alone due to their APD that they use drugs and alcohol as a way to numb their emotions.
Assessing Avoidant Behavior in Teens
Assessment by a mental health professional is the only way to know whether a teenager is suffering from one of these three types of avoidance behavior:
- Being shy or avoiding interactions as a result of shyness, social awkwardness, or fear of strangers—often a normal part of maturing
- Anxiety avoidance as a result of anxious thoughts or an anxiety disorder, an eating disorder, or another mental health condition
- Avoidant personality disorder.
Avoidant Personality Disorder Treatment
Treatment for avoidant behavior is essential, as those with this disorder tend to isolate themselves. Consequently, people with avoidant personality disorder can end up alone and completely isolated if the disorder is allowed to progress.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a proven treatment approach for avoidant personality disorder. Specifically, CBT helps people learn to understand their anxiety and their avoidant reactions. Moreover, they learn better ways to cope with avoidant personality disorder and its symptoms.
Furthermore, CBT groups can give people with social anxiety a chance to practice talking and interacting with others.
In conclusion, there is hope and help for those with ABD. Moreover, for teens with avoidant behavior, prompt assessment and treatment is vital in order to prevent the acceleration of symptoms. Moreover, therapy can address co-occurring issues, such as an anxiety disorder or substance abuse. Finally, with the right treatment, teenagers can grow into adults who are happy and comfortable with who they are, and able to develop strong, authentic connections with others.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)