Teen Avoidance Behavior: What It Is and How to Recognize It

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 Institute of Mental Health, about 5.2 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.

School Avoidance in Adolescents

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.

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.

In conclusion, there is hope and help for those with ABT. Moreover, for teens with avoidant behavior, prompt assessment and treatment is vital in order to prevent 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.

Level “1” Autism vs High Functioning Autism vs Asperger Syndrome – Understanding Their Differences

There is no formal diagnosis called “high-functioning autism” (HFA), and no agreed upon definition of “high functioning.” So what is meant by the term? In a very general way, may mean:

  • “a person with relatively mild symptoms which, despite their mildness, are significant enough to merit an autism spectrum diagnosis” or…
  • “a person with autism whose IQ is higher than 70″ or..”a person with autism who is successfully navigating a typical school or work environment” or…
  • “a person who is able to mask symptoms of autism successfully so they they have in expected ways and can pass for neurotypical” or…
  • “a person who, at one point, had an Asperger Syndrome diagnosis.”

As you can see, one person’s HFA is… just one person’s HFA. Add to this the fact that many people with autism may be bright, accomplished, and yet have severe symptoms (such as anxiety and sensory dysfunction) that significantly impact their daily functioning. Bottom line, HFA really is hard to define.

Why High Functioning Autism Isn’t the Same as Asperger Syndrome

Until 2013, many people who might be said to have high functioning autism were diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.

  • Asperger syndrome was a distinct diagnosis which described a person of average or higher-than-average intelligence and age appropriate language skills who also had significant social and communication challenges.

Perhaps more significant, people with Asperger Syndrome do seem to share certain personal characteristics that are not shared by all people with higher IQ’s and autism. For example, anxiety is often a symptom of Asperger Syndrome which is not shared by everyone who could be described as having HFA.

Is ‘Level 1’ Autism the Same as ‘High Functioning Autism?’

But what does a person with Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder look like? The answer is as diverse as the people who have the diagnosis. For example:

  • They can use age-appropriate language, read, write, do math, show affection, complete daily tasks—but can’t hold eye contact, maintain a conversation, engage in play, or pick up on social cues.
  • They have significant speech and language delays but are able to take part in an inclusive academic program because their age-appropriate academic skills.
  • They have relatively mild speech and social delays but have severe sensory issues which make it impossible for them to take part in an inclusive academic program.
  • They have severe anxiety, learning disabilities, and sensory challenges—but have age-appropriate speech and extraordinary abilities in music, math, and engineering.

In short, the possible combinations of strengths and challenges are almost endless. This means that the concept of “Level 1” autism is also pretty tricky.

 Apparently, the people who developed the idea of “Levels of Support” were thinking in a very general way—that is, people with Level 3 autism need 24/7 skilled support, while people with Level 1 autism don’t.

How Much Support Does a ‘High Functioning’ Individual Need?

While few people with “high functioning” autism need help with toileting or basic hygiene, they may very well need a good deal of support in other settings. For example, a very bright individual with severe sensory issues, anxiety, and perseveration might actually have a more difficult time in the workplace than a less intelligent individual with less anxiety and fewer sensory issues.

What’s more, a “lower functioning” individual might spend most of their day in a supported setting where the possibility of dangerous interactions is almost zero. Meanwhile, the individual with “high functioning” autism may need to navigate a world of complex and hazardous situations. Who needs more support under those circumstances?

No Easy Answers

Autism is a puzzle—not because individuals with autism are so puzzling, but because the ever-changing definitions of autism mean we cannot come to a final conclusion.

And not only are the definitions changing, but so are the social expectations that make high functioning autism so challenging. In the past, for example, face to face communication was the key to personal success; today, many people with social challenges are more than capable of interacting with others online, making friends through social media, and even holding down a job at a distance. Some businesses are hiring high functioning autistic people because of their unique abilities, while others cannot imagine hiring a person with compromised social skills.

If this leaves you feeling that the definition of high functioning autism is clear as mud, you’re not alone! At least now, however, you understand why the term is so tough to nail down—and you know you’re in good company.