Avoidance Behavior: Normal Teen Behavior or a Bigger Concern?

It’s not uncommon for teenagers to use avoidance behavior to cope with difficult emotions, experiences, and thoughts. For instance, they may procrastinate or bury their feelings to deal with bullying, trauma, or social anxiety. When are these behaviors normal, and when do they signal a problem you need to address?   

To explore this topic, we spoke to AJ Frithiof, a licensed clinical social worker and young adults clinical director at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy, a wilderness therapy program in Bend, Oregon.

What Is Avoidance Behavior? 

Avoidance behavior is a way of coping with challenging feelings, thoughts, and experiences. People use avoidance to minimize dangers and threats. Basically, the mind is trying to keep a person safe from a source of anxiety or danger.   

As Frithiof explained, avoidance behavior is used “to get people away from whatever the root issue is and focused on something else instead.” 

Avoidance as a Coping Mechanism 

Unfortunately, using avoidance as a coping mechanism isn’t an effective solution to dealing with stressful situations. Over time, it can lead to more problems than it solves.  

“It’s like burying something under a rug, and ultimately the rug ends up looking like Mount Everest,” Frithiof said. “Or it’s like shoving a bunch of stuff into a closet. There’s so much jammed into the closet that things are leaking out, and you can’t shut the door.” 

For instance, teenagers may turn to substance use to cope with bullying at school or the loss of a loved one. Instead of dealing with difficult emotions head-on, they’re trying to avoid those feelings. However, drinking alcohol or taking drugs can end up causing more stress and anxiety in the long run — and the original stressor remains. 

Another example of how using avoidance for coping can cause problems is when teens don’t want to leave the house because they suffer from social anxiety. Until they learn how to manage social situations, they may have difficulty with seemingly simple activities like enjoying a high school dance or socializing with people at college. So, while the behavior originally existed to help them cope, it could keep them from experiencing life to the fullest for years to come.   

Types of Avoidance  

You may spot several types of avoidance behavior in your teen.      

Emotional avoidance 

Emotional avoidance happens when your teen is trying to avoid experiencing a certain feeling. For instance, they might try to avoid being insecure, angry, or isolated. They may engage in substance use or passive-aggressive behaviors to avoid dealing with these emotions. 

According to Frithiof, teens may try joking around, being sarcastic, or being sassy so they don’t have to talk about their emotions. So, if you try to have a serious conversation, they may brush it off or greet your efforts with sarcasm.  

Situational avoidance 

Teens with avoidance issues may try to stay away from situations where they feel negative emotions. This is the most common form of avoidance coping.  

Situational avoidance is often seen in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because they’ll try to avoid situational triggers. For instance, if your teen has PTSD after a school shooting, they may not want to watch fireworks because the loud and sometimes unpredictable sounds could trigger a flashback or panic attack.  

Cognitive avoidance 

With this kind of psychological avoidance, your teen is trying to get their mind to stop reliving distressing emotions and thoughts. They may disconnect from what’s going on around them or distract themself from bad memories and feelings. In some cases, your teenager may resort to toxic positivity or fantasies to dodge their troubling thoughts. 

Often, teens using cognitive avoidance will try to intellectualize an issue. Frithiof said they may give you an intellectual answer to a question or reason for their actions instead of discussing the deeper problem. 

Protective avoidance  

If your teen is practicing protective avoidance, they may compulsively clean, wear lucky charms, or use other tactics to feel more secure. Basically, they’re trying to manage their physical environment so their emotions seem safer.  

It’s important to note that for many people, there’s a fine line between protective avoidance and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or eating disorders. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of those issues so you can spot them in your teen and get mental health treatment for them if needed.   

Somatic avoidance  

With somatic avoidance, your teen may avoid any situation that causes them to feel a stress response or anxiety.  

During a stress response, there are tingling sensations in the fingers and a racing heart rate. Falling in love or working out can cause the same physical reactions, so if your teen is dealing with somatic avoidance, they may avoid these positive, healthy experiences.  

Substitution avoidance 

If your teen is dealing with substitution avoidance, they may try to replace one feeling with another. For instance, they may replace grief with anger. Or, instead of dealing with emotional pain, they may turn to drugs, food, or alcohol.  

Examples of Avoidance Behavior  

Each person is unique, so teens can experience avoidance behavior in different ways. For instance, Frithiof has seen some young people dive harder into schoolwork and use perfectionism to avoid their emotions. Teens think they can be perfect, and then no one else will know they aren’t. However, these temporary coping mechanisms simply mask underlying issues, and they won’t help forever.  

In addition to diving into schoolwork and striving for perfection, other examples of avoidance behavior include: 

  • Socially isolating. 
  • Substance abuse
  • Escapism.  
  • Burying emotions.  
  • Avoiding eye contact.  
  • Ruminating on thoughts.  
  • Speaking quietly. 
  • Leaving gatherings early. 
  • Passive-aggressive behavior. 
  • Procrastination.

Typical Teen Avoidance Behavior vs. a Mental Health Issue 

Teen using avoidance as a coping mechanism ducks past a group of friends.
Teen using avoidance as a coping mechanism ducks past a group of friends.

Avoiding problems isn’t always a major issue. For instance, if procrastinating on assignments went hand-in-hand with a mental health issue, many students would have to sign up for therapy. What matters is figuring out when your teen’s avoidance behaviors are normal and when they’re a sign of a mental health issue you need to address.    

Ultimately, the difference between typical use of avoidance for coping and a mental health struggle is the severity of the behavior.  

“If there’s a little bit of social isolation and some loneliness, that can be normal and typical,” Frithiof said. “If your kid is constantly skipping school or not leaving the house for multiple days at a time, we’re likely looking at something more severe.” 

If your teen’s avoidance behavior is getting in the way of their normal life, they may need some extra help.  

How To Stop Avoidance Behavior 

It’s important for teens to learn how to manage challenging emotions because harmful coping mechanisms can cause additional stress and anxiety. If you’re worried about your teenager and want to know how to stop avoidance behavior, there are a few strategies you can use.    

Help your teen develop healthy coping skills 

Ultimately, avoidant behavior exists because your teen is trying to cope with challenging feelings. To stop avoiding problems, they’ll need to find alternative coping methods.  

You can encourage your teen to try methods such as deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation, which can be used throughout the day and could be especially helpful at night if they’re having a hard time sleeping. Teenagers can also benefit from journaling, meditation, yoga, and exercise.  

Also, if they’re struggling with anxiety, suggest they track what causes them to feel anxious so they can spot patterns, which will help them recognize when they need to use coping skills.  

Help your teen to be accountable 

Helping your teen to be accountable when they seem to be avoiding dealing with problems can help motivate them to face the issues that are troubling them. For instance, you can ask them about a project they’ve been procrastinating on or remind them about going to their grief support group. 

Teach your teen healthy communication skills 

Sometimes, the best way you can help your teen deal with avoidance is by encouraging them to talk about what’s troubling them. Let them know that by sharing their feelings, they’re taking an important step toward figuring out how to better deal with difficult emotions and experiences.  

As part of this process, Frithiof recommended reassuring your child that they aren’t in trouble. Approach them from an understanding and supportive place. 

“Get curious with your kids in a nonjudgmental way, and explore why they’re having these feelings,” Frithiof said. “Behaviors like avoidance, social isolation, and procrastination tend to be a sign that a child is afraid to share their thoughts with other people, including their parents.” 

Look for a therapist to help 

If you feel your teen needs more support than what you can provide at home, contact a therapist. This type of mental health professional has experience helping clients with avoidance behavior and can tell you if your teenager is behaving normally or needs extra help. If they do need support, the therapist can then develop a treatment plan.  

Avoidance Behavior Wrapup 

While it’s not unusual for teens to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, experiences, and thoughts, avoiding their problems can lead to additional issues that have long-term consequences. The good news is you can help them face their struggles head-on, including connecting them with a therapist if needed. By approaching your child with compassion and curiosity, you can provide needed support so they can stop avoidance behavior. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today!

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.