Avoidance is one of many survival mechanisms designed to protect us from danger. If you’ve ever had food poisoning from what seemed like an healthy piece of fish, you know it will be a long time before you eat fish again! You avoid fish. Or if you took your child to a park where your s/he got hurt by a rusty swing, you choose other parks in the future. You avoid that “rusty” park.
Avoidance helps protect us. But what if there is no danger? What if your child seems to be avoiding perfectly safe locations, activities or people? Avoidance is a common behaviour when anxiety strikes and teaching your child how to cope through approach rather than avoidance is an important tool. Consider the following ideas to teach your child why we want to learn to approach situations rather than avoid them.
- Conversation: Begin by identifying a situation when either your child or someone you know experienced a situation where they avoided and the outcome was not good. Using someone familiar helps make it more meaningful to your child. If you cannot think of a personal example, there are often examples in storybooks or movies where a main character avoids telling someone the truth and ends up with a worse outcome than if s/he had dealt with the situation in the first place. Such examples help the child to understand that they aren’t alone in using avoidance. However, it also teaches that avoidance comes with some big costs to pay and so is not a great long-term solution.
“Remember when Darshan didn’t go to the stable for a few days because she thought she needed to spend extra hours studying for her test? But, her horse had a cold, and because she stopped going to see her horse, no one noticed and her horse got sick? Although Darshan felt good for the first few days not going, she soon started to feel guilty, and when she eventually got to the stable and found a sick horse, she felt really sad, guilty and ashamed. This was made worse when her teacher changed the test to a quiz and said it wasn’t worth much toward the final grade. We call that avoiding rather than approaching or dealing with a situation. Have you noticed recently that your worry seems to be making you avoid certain things? Although when we first avoid we might feel better, after a while the situation can get harder, and eventually when we do have to deal with the situation, it can feel terrible. Can you think of other examples?”
- Activity: You and your child will need a piece of paper and a pen. Hold the piece of paper up lengthwise, or as a portrait orientation, and fold it in half. Now open the paper up and on the right hand column have you or your child write down all the things anxiety makes your child do when he is avoiding, such as crying, sitting home alone, staying indoors, feeling scared, being bored, etc. Then turn the page over and on the reverse side, also right hand column, have you or your child write out a list of all the things anxiety makes your child avoid, such as going to school, sleeping in his own bed, playing sports, making new friends, etc. Then fold the page back in half with the first list covering up the second list. Help your child notice how the list of avoidance-based behaviours and feelings blocks out the fun activities he is forced to miss by avoiding.