‘I don’t want to go!’ ‘I don’t want to talk about it!’ ‘I’m not doing it!’
Sound familiar? Your child’s excited about a friend’s birthday party, but when it comes to leaving the house they refuse to go. Or you can tell that your child’s worried about something, but when you ask if they want to talk about it they dismiss the invitation and instead hide in their room or have an emotional outburst. Or maybe they just blindly refuse every option you give them, choosing instead to push their brother or sister over in a moment of frenzy.
Defiance is a healthy part of a child’s development; children test boundaries, learn how to say ‘no’, and aren’t always compliant. However, when this defiance starts to limit a child’s experience this is more often than not a sign of avoidance.
Children with PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) or ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) often show signs of avoidant behaviour. This article is not specific to the needs of children with PDA or ODD but will instead look at the commonality of avoidant behaviours; anxiety. If you’re supporting a child with PDA or ODD, you’ll find some of what I’m saying applies and some things don’t, so please use the strategies with your own experience and knowledge in mind.
Avoidance is a coping strategy; a protective mechanism that allows us to avoid feeling difficult or overwhelming emotions. We humans don’t like feeling uncomfortable; If something feels hard, it’s much easier to run from it. I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced this; preferring to hang out the washing for example, instead of confronting a noisy neighbour or contacting a bereaved friend.
Avoidance works well in the short term, but not dealing with the stressors when we’re faced with them can often increase anxiety levels later down the line. So how can you playfully support a child who is avoiding something?
Anxiety is often the root cause of avoidance; when anxiety is unmanaged or undetected, a child may feel out of control or overwhelmed. Giving them the skills to recognise and measure their anxiety is a wonderful first step. In my article, A Playful Approach to Difficult Emotions, I introduce an anxiety scale that can be used as a reference point before and after an activity.
I always remind the parents, teachers and carers who attend my workshops, that each child is different, something that works for one may not work for another, so it’s good to have many ideas up your sleeve. Listed below are a selection of activities that can be used to support anxious little ones who are displaying avoidant behaviours. For more ideas check out my online workshops.
Emotions are temporary, they come and go, yet avoidant children might feel unequipped to deal with the intensity of their emotions. This activity creates space for a child to experience emotions safely.
Drawing to music
Choose a few different tracks from different genres of music, i.e. rock, classical, folk or rap (the more emotive the better). Then encourage your child to draw along to the music and enquire into their response. What colour did they use for the angry rock song? Was it a spikey line or bold and thick? How did the track make them feel in their body and what thoughts arose as they drew along?
This activity builds on a child’s ability to identify and regulate their emotions in future, and therefore helps them to feel more resilient to the wave of fear they might experience when faced with something they’re scared of.
Approaching your child’s fears with respect and patience is vital, even if the fear is imaginary or irrational. Putting the control in their hands whilst facing a fear, helps them to gradually desensitise to it instead of avoiding it.
The Stop/Go game was created by Lawrence J Cohen when his daughter refused to have her nails trimmed. In this game, the child directs the adult to ‘Stop’ or ‘Go’ whilst each time getting closer to her toe nails. This technique can be used for a variety of fears or phobias and helps children to feel braver and empowered instead of fearful and avoidant.
Positive affirmations can boost self-esteem and help children to feel more confident and in control. Try getting your child to repeat these affirmations out loud or in their head.
I am whole, I am enough, I have courage and confidence, my challenges help me grow, I believe in myself, everything will be ok, I am braver than I think, I can face my fears with confidence!
Katie Rose White is a Laughter Facilitator and founder of ‘The Best Medicine’. She works predominantly with carers, teachers and healthcare professionals – teaching playful strategies for boosting mood, strengthening resilience and improving wellbeing. She provides practical workshops, interactive talks and training days – fusing therapeutic laughter techniques, playful games and activities, and mindfulness-based practices. The techniques are not only designed to equip participants with tools for managing their stress, but can also be used and adapted to the needs of the people that they are supporting.