Written by Annabel Sibalis, MA & Dr. Karen Milligan, Ph.D., C Psych
To some degree, we all experience day-to-day stress and challenges that can temporarily impact our mood or functioning. An occasional social gaffe, finding an error in an important report you spent hours on, or not getting chosen for a promotion you were hoping for can undoubtedly cause distress. But what if these experiences happened more frequently to you than to those around you? What would this distress feel like? How would you feel about yourself? Would you start looking at and responding to challenges differently?
This experience is a lived reality for many of the 10% of Canadian children with learning disabilities (LDs). Despite having cognitive and many other strengths, children with LDs often feel that they have to put in more work for poorer outcomes. This may fuel children’s belief that they are a ‘failure’, ‘not smart’, or ‘less liked by peers’. At times, negative outcomes may also reinforce these self-beliefs, such as not being invited to play with other children, receiving a poor grade, or being sent to the principal’s office for non-compliance. This can increase a child’s distress, their negative beliefs about their ability to be successful, and their sense of agency in the world.
What is Avoidant Coping?
Often, children cope with this distress by gradually withdrawing from or avoiding situations, thoughts, or feelings, and engaging in behaviours like procrastination, school refusal, lying about getting work done, or feeling tired or unwell (Bender et al., 1999; Feurer & Andrews, 2009). This avoidance can be a common and effective way to ‘turn down the volume’ of distress.
For children, avoidant coping may look like withdrawal or ‘flight’, such as a child who evades talking to and playing with other children at recess, or who frequently disengages during social interaction. However, a ‘fight’ response can also be used to avoid and cope with distress. A child may refuse to complete schoolwork or attend classes, or act out to shift focus away from the challenge and thereby reduce their associated feelings of discomfort.
Avoidant coping may also be less visible, occurring within a child’s internal world. Children may overestimate their competence or downplay challenges despite real-world evidence that challenge is evident, a coping strategy known as the positive illusory bias. Here are some examples:
How is this positive illusory bias?
|Jacob receives a bad grade on a test.||Jacob did not understand the material covered in the test, or performed poorly on his test due to anxiety, attention challenges, or other factors.||“The test was unfair!”
“That teacher doesn’t like me, so they gave me a bad grade on purpose.”
|Jacob knows he has trouble in school, which causes him distress. It is hard to face these difficult feelings, so instead, he insists that he does know the material and his bad grade isn’t his fault.|
|Maria is rarely invited to play or socialize with other children in her class.||Maria has poor social skills and has trouble connecting with her peers.||“I have plenty of friends! I just don’t feel like playing with anyone today.”||Maria is hurt by her peers’ rejection of her but avoids these feelings by projecting that she is the one choosing not to play with them.|
|Nadia is distracted and disruptive when asked to sit quietly during class.||Nadia struggles with inattention, impulse control, and/or regulating her behaviour.||“I was paying attention!”||Nadia is aware she has more trouble focusing than her peers, but is self-conscious of this and finds it difficult to admit. Instead of doing so, she insists she was indeed behaving.|
Avoidant Coping: If It Works, Why Fix It?
Initially, avoidant coping is helpful. By physically avoiding a challenge or cognitively avoiding a painful truth, a child can diminish or delay experiencing negative emotions such as sadness, shame, anger, or anxiety.
Avoidant coping may also seem like the more efficient and effective route to solving a problem: instead of regulating strong emotions by controlling impulses, shifting focus, breaking experiences down into their component parts, planning, initiating, and self-monitoring – skills that can be areas of challenge for children with LDs (Bryan et al., 2004) – one can simply avoid. Feeling ineffective or receiving negative feedback from parents, teachers, siblings, or peers when emotion regulation attempts are unsuccessful may also contribute to a more persistent pattern of avoidant coping.
While avoidant coping is rewarding in the short term, the potential for long-term costs increases with its use. These costs can include:
1. Avoidant behaviour inevitably restricts the types of activities and experiences that children engage in.
By avoiding a new or challenging experience, a child is exposed to fewer opportunities to develop their skills (including social, academic, physical, and emotion regulation skills) and to see that success and growth are possible (referred to as a ‘growth mindset’ by Smiley & Dweck, 1994). Further, avoidant coping is ‘addictive’ and can create patterns that make it increasingly difficult to approach future challenges (Kasha et al., 2006; Linnea et al., 2013).
2. Chronic use of avoidant coping can indirectly increase the frequency and severity of later negative emotions, and decrease belief in oneself in the long term (Kasha et al., 2006).
This is because the child is not dealing with the problem at hand; rather, they are pushing it off until later. Unfortunately, this increases the likelihood that when the child does approach the problem in the future, they will be approaching a more severe problem and doing so under increased demands. Thus, avoidant coping reinforces self-doubt and undermines the development of self-confidence and the child’s belief that they can achieve success. Again, this contributes to further entrenching a child in their stance of avoidance.
3. Avoidant coping increases the risk for poorer mental health in the long term.
Children who engage in a persistent pattern of avoidant coping experience higher levels of depressive symptoms (Noble et al., 2011), aggression (Stephens et al., 2016), and delinquent and risky behaviour (Edens et al., 1999; Hoza et al., 2014). Further, avoidant coping may limit engagement in interventions that may support skill development and well-being, such as academic remediation, social skills training, or individual or family therapy (Mikami et al., 2010).
Shifting from Avoidant Coping to Approach Coping
The antidote to avoidant coping is fostering approach. Just as it is important to understand how information processing and experience impact the development and maintenance of avoidant coping, they are equally important for helping children shift their coping towards approach-oriented strategies. While more applied research is needed to understand approach and avoidance for different learning strengths and needs (Owens et al., 2007), some broad tips for caregivers and teachers for shifting gears towards approach coping are as follows:
1. Facilitate Positive Learning Environments
Set children up for success by adapting the demands or context so that there is a high chance for success, and then reward their effort. It can be helpful to break challenges down by considering the context, the people, and the task, and then work gradually towards the desired goal by changing one element at a time (McHolm, 2005). For example, a child might feel safe to engage in a low-stress social activity with one welcoming and accepting peer but feel intimidated attending a crowded birthday party. Similarly, a child may be more willing to try developing their reading skills one-on-one with a trusted, encouraging teacher, as opposed to reading aloud in front of their whole class. Start where success can occur and do not worry that the child will stay at this level forever – the momentum of success will foster their ability to approach and make more advanced steps towards the goal.
2. Encourage Self-Awareness
Understand that self-awareness (including awareness and understanding of what makes things hard or easy) is a skill that develops with age. Cognitive processing challenges can impact on this self-awareness, and given the complexity of the cognitive and learning profiles of some children with LDs, ADHD, and related disorders, they may need explicit help in developing this understanding as well as additional time to acquire this skill (Bourchtein et al., 2017; Volz-Sidiropoulou et al., 2013). Adults can help children develop self-awareness by encouraging them to reflect on what went well in a situation and what was harder, what they like and don’t like, and what they are thinking and feeling. Timing is an important consideration – rather than initiating these discussions when an child is in ‘fight or flight’ mode, invite the opportunity to step away for a moment to manage the distress. Be sure to set a time to revist the challenge when distress has decreased. Take the time to listen, be present with the child, and validate their views. Help children to see that distress can be present, yet we can still approach and experience success (ensuring the goal is one where the chances of success are high and the needed supports are present). Reflect on your own challenges and how you have approached them in the face of distress to help children to develop this skill (Perez, 2011).
3. Provide Support Through Frequent Positive Feedback
Just as distress or negative feedback can promote avoidant coping, positive feedback can promote approach coping and support the development of self-confidence and mental health. Access to positive feedback can be less frequent for some children with LDs, both at school and even within their family system (despite good intentions). Further, most children with LDs are aware of the negative stereotypes associated with their disorder, and often report feelings of shame, humiliation, or low self-concept, ultimately perpetuating self-protective strategies such as avoidant coping (Daley & Rappolt-Schlichtmann, 2018; Wiener et al., 2012). It is important to combat this frequent negative messaging in order to bolster children’s self-esteem and mental health by talking openly about challenges a child has experienced and overcome, and validating the effort they put forth. Providing positive feedback or rewards for small wins, and normalizing that we all have learning strengths and challenges, help children with LDs to identify their own individual strengths – which may fall outside of traditional school subjects (Baglieri & Knopf, 2004).
Encountering life challenges in academic, social, and other domains is part of the normal course of a child’s development. Some children, particularly those with LDs, may encounter a higher frequency of these challenges, and thus may require additional support in order to approach and learn from these challenges in healthy ways. Instead of relying upon avoidant coping strategies, which are helpful in the short-term but ultimately not supportive of long-term academic, social or emotional well-being, parents and educators can bolster children’s ability to instead adopt ‘approach coping’. Shifting to this mindset promotes mental wellness and achievement, and may help set children with LDs up for success now and in the years to come.
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About the Authors:
Dr. Karen Milligan, Ph.D., C Psych, is an Associate Professor and the Director of Clinical Training in the Psychology Department at Ryerson University. She has a broad program of community-based research focusing on the promotion of self-regulation in children and adolescents. She is interested in evaluating innovative community-based prevention and treatment programs, particularly those that integrate service delivery across traditionally distinct service sectors (e.g., school, mental health, CAS, addictions).
Annabel Sibalis, MA, is a doctoral candidate in the Psychological Science program at Ryerson University. Her primary research interests include mental health in children and youth with learning and executive functioning differences, with a focus on using neurophysiological methods to examine attention and its relation to mental health symptoms, social skills, and cognition. In addition, she researches and advocates for student wellness in academic spheres.