Task avoidance behaviour as a part of normal development
Most children occasionally have times when they do not want to do a task because it’s too difficult, unfamiliar, unpleasant, boring, ambiguous or they want to do something else instead. When this happens, adults can help their child by talking through the importance of completing the assigned task, encouraging them and if needed helping them complete the activity. The reluctance or refusal to do the task usually fades away.
Task avoidance as a behaviour of concern
Some children show a repetitive and persistent pattern of only partially completing or totally avoiding the assigned task – is called task avoidance. Task avoidance behaviour is used by the child to escape/avoid a specific activity that they perceive as aversive (meaningless, non-functional, boring); has the potential for causing physical discomfort (e.g. physical pain, injury and experiencing the physical symptoms related to anxiety) and/or psychological discomfort (e.g. thoughts related to anxiety, failing and shame) connected to performing a task. Children with low self-esteem believe that they are less capable than their peers, lack the skills needed to perform a task and even if they put their best effort into the activity they will not succeed.
Impact of task avoidance behaviour
When a child engages in task avoidance behaviour, they experience a temporary sense of relief from the physical and psychological discomfort. However, in the longer term prolonged and ongoing task avoidance leads to the behaviour becoming ingrained.
The example below describes how this happens. Jamie has to leave for a camp on Monday for two nights. She has never been away from home before or gone camping. A week before the camp she starts experiencing anxious thoughts on a daily basis such as, ‘What if nobody sits with me on the bus on the way to camp? What if I can’t do all the outdoor activities? What if I can’t sleep? I’ll lose my new towel. I won’t be able to open my sleeping bag or pack it up and everyone’s going to laugh at me.’ Accompanying these thoughts are a range of physical symptoms. She finds it hard to breathe, feels nauseous, and has trembling and shaky hands. These thoughts and symptoms appear to be getting worse, as she doesn’t know how to deal with them. Mid-week, she starts telling her parents she doesn’t want to go to camp. They try to convince her and encourage her to go, but as the week progresses, she begins to have meltdowns. By Sunday night, Jamie is in such a state that her parents can’t calm her down and are feeling helpless so they tell her she doesn’t have to go to camp. Jamie immediately calms down and it appears that her anxiety has gone away. Her parents feel extremely disappointed because they know how much fun she would have had at camp. The consequences of permitting the avoidance of the camping trip are:
It reinforces that all of her thoughts about camp were true: i.e. that nobody would have sat with her on the bus. She wouldn’t have been able to do all the outdoor activities. She wouldn’t have been able to sleep on camp. She would have lost her new towel. She would have struggled with opening and packing away her sleeping bag and everyone would have laughed at her.
By not going to camp, Jamie has missed out on a ‘corrective experience’ whereby facing her fears she would have realised that some of them were not true and even if something ‘bad’ did happen, it would have been tolerable and not as ‘bad’ as she thought. For example, had she gone on the bus, the peer sitting next to her might have spoken to her for a little while or maybe they would have become good friends. Had she attempted the outdoor activities, she could have seen that other children also struggled and realised she was not too bad at them, or actually quite good at some of them. She might have been able to sleep after all, or spend the night talking to her friends and having fun.
Avoidance reinforces her belief that if all of her fears came true, she wouldn’t have the skills to face and overcome them. It reinforces that it was good that she didn’t go to camp. This reduces her self-esteem and sends the message that the world is a dangerous place, which increases her general feeling of insecurity.
From the example above it’s clear each time a child avoids a task, they experience a temporary loss of the confidence and skills involved in engaging in what they perceive as a challenging task. This in turn makes them increasingly afraid of the task and other similar tasks, allowing the cycle of avoidance to intensify, encouraging further avoidance. The example also highlights the frustration, distress and feelings of helplessness that the families experience. Task avoidance also presents a challenge to contexts such as childcare, preschool, kindergarten, schools, disability support and youth services.
Positive support resources for task avoidance behaviour
Positive Support (PBS) focuses on evidence-based strategies and person-centred supports that address the needs of the individual and the undertask avoidance questioning causes of behaviours of concern, to enhance the quality of life for both the individual and those that support them.
PBS recognises that there is no single cause for task avoidance behaviour . It is a complex that is a product of the interaction between multiple factors contributing to its development and persistence.
Task avoidance behaviour is like the tip of the iceberg so it is essential to look beneath the surface to work out the why before we can address the problem. Behaviour Help resources are at hand.