Avoidance Patterns and Teens

Teens & Stress

The daily challenges that teens meet today are very different than those teens faced even just 15 years ago. One coping pattern teens are using to deal with school and social stressors is avoidance. There’s a number of reasons why the frequency of avoidance seems to be increasing in the teen population and the unfortunate part of this coping pattern is that it often becomes the main option that teens use to deal with stress or stressful events.

Why Teens Use Avoidance

Avoiding seems like a good option to teens because it is effective in reducing stress in the moment. For example, a teen may choose to stay home and play video games instead of going to school and giving their speech in class. However, when the teen feels better through avoiding, they are more likely to avoid again and more likely to feel even more anxious. The problems increase as the teen continues to avoid because over time avoidance behaviors actually increase anxiety.

Why Avoidance is Harmful

Avoidance decreases opportunities for social interactions and problem solving. Without stepping into these stressful or challenging situations, the teen’s fear of the speech dictates how they think about public speaking and the social spotlight. But by completing the speech, the teen now has a chance for alternative outcomes. Namely, that the speech wasn’t as bad as they thought, that it was rough but they could handle it, that a lot of other people were nervous too, or even that they prepared and did very well.

What Can a Parent do to Help?

Teen avoidance may be increasing due to our culture of convenience, decreases in face-to-face communication, and the increased pace of family lives. Although a “magic bullet” rarely exists for these challenges, here are few ideas that counselors use frequently in sessions and parents can use as well.

  1.  Connect and don’t invalidate. Before hearing Mom or Dad out, teens need to feel understood. A big misstep parents can make is to downplay the situation that the teen is worried about by saying “it isn’t a big deal” or “just go do it”. Try to understand more about what’s going on for your teen. Take note of shifts in your teen’s mood or behavior and try to bring it up in a compassionate way. For example, “I noticed you’ve been more distant today and I was wondering if you’re feeling stressed about something.”
  2. Normalize the situation. Your teen might feel self-conscious about their feelings of worry or stress. Finding a way to help remind your teen that it’s normal to feel fear or anxiousness about some situations helps to increase a teen’s openness. You might try saying, “It makes total sense why you’d feel nervous or stressed about that”. Or “I bet a lot of people are feeling overwhelmed about that project/speech/test/etc.”
  3. Support and express confidence. Once we’ve done the first two things, we have a better chance to help problem solve and express confidence in our teen without resistance. You might try exploring some of the long-term and short-term results of avoiding the situation. Sometimes just simply reminding the teen that they have what it takes is enough to help the teen go forward.

Making it through the teenage years is an art and not a science! Connecting and then supporting your teen will make a huge difference with challenging avoidance behavior. For more information on avoidance patterns, check out episode 98 of the Todays Teenager Podcast.

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