3 Easy Ways to Tell if Your Teen is Anxious or Avoidant

Image:  Pexels

Imagine This....

It's 6:45am Monday morning. You're alternating between calling the dog back inside and your daughter to get up so she can get to school in time. After one last sip of coffee (well for that cup at least), you stomp upstairs, warning for the storm that's coming if she still hasn't gotten out of bed.

You open the bedroom door and see she's gotten out of bed, but instead of getting dressed and her school things together, your daughter is shaking and crying on the floor. She looks up at you and says, "Please don't make me go to school today. I'm too anxious!"

It breaks your heart to see your little girl hurting so badly, though you also can't help but wonder at the convenience. After all, she was fine eating popcorn at the movies yesterday afternoon filled with a crowd of strangers. Why does this keep happening on school mornings but not when fun things happen?

If you have a teen who suffers from any diagnosable anxiety condition, you know the dilemma I'm talking about. 

Is it Anxiety or is it Avoidance!?

The honest truth is- it's difficult to tell. Sometimes these scenarios start out as avoidance and morph into true anxiety. Other times, it happens in reverse.

Here are 3 easy ways to help you tell the difference

#1: Know the Difference

Dr. Julie Hartman explains Anxiety wonderfully in her book, Devoted Moms, Anxious Kids: "Anxiety has evolved in humans as a way to achieve a state of focus that increases our likelihood of giving a strong amount of attention, energy, and effort to something important."

In other words, anxiety is meant to help us pay attention because this is a new experience or we are unsure of the outcome.

Avoidance is generally a coping skill used when we're feeling an overwhelming, or uncomfortable, emotional experience. I talk about how the difference between avoiding and taking space in my video about Feelings and Emotions: Click here to watch the video

#2: Be Curious

In the moment, whether or not your teen is experiencing anxiety symptoms, or engaging in avoiding behaviors- the fact is they are stressed out about something. If you come from an assuming position, you're already setting yourself up for a potential emotional backlash which will just lead to increased anxiety or avoidance.

Instead, try coming from a curious position such as "I see you crying- are you feeling overwhelmed or sad about something?"

At another time when they aren't experiencing anxiety and/or avoidance, you can ask them "I'd love to hear more about why school mornings are so difficult so I can understand and help you better." 

#3: Plan Ahead

I've written before about how planning ahead is crucial to decreasing, or even minimizing these types of episodes. If you don't already have it, you should check out the Coping Ahead Plan template I created: click here to download your free Coping Ahead Plan

You can also check out the Facebook Live video series I created about how to use this plan. click here to watch the videos (note: sadly Facebook hasn't made Playlists shareable just yet so you'll have to scroll down to the Coping Ahead Plan series playlist to view the videos there).

Having a written plan of what helps, and having those items/reminders handy is huge for these types of situations.

Is Your Teen Still Struggling?

Whether your teen is truly anxious, or avoiding something, the fact remains these situations are difficult to manage! Engaging your teen with a therapist who is skilled at helping teen anxiety can be especially helpful for a long-term solution for this type of problem.

I find the girls in my teen girl therapy groups help get ahead of these problems faster because they have each other's support and accountability. Plus, helping others can helping themselves too! If you think your teen girl could benefit from this type of group, call me at 203-228-8971 today so we can talk about the next best steps for her. 

Want even more positive influences in your teen's life? Teen Girls Therapy Group is a weekly space where your teen girl can connect with others dealing with anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. By talking and learning together, they learn to feel better about the relationships they have with themselves and others.

If you want to secure your teen's spot- complete your complimentary 15-min parent phone screening at 203-228-8971 or completing the contact form here.

Mallory Grimste, LCSW - Teen Therapist

Mental Health Counseling for Anxious Tweens, Teens, and Young Adults | Woodbridge, CT