Stress and Avoidance Behavior: What Causes It and How to Break the Cycle  

Written by Lisa Bleich

Does the stress of a deadline fuel you or overwhelm you?  Do you find yourself (or your child) playing video games, watching Netflix, devouring YouTube videos instead of doing your homework when you are stressed out?  Is this a typical scenario in your home?

Mom: Did you do your math homework?

Johnny: Yeah, I did it during my free period.

Mom: That’s great honey. Perhaps you could use the time to work on the English paper you were telling me about instead of playing video games.

Johnny: C’mom Mom!!!! You’re always on my back.  I was working on it earlier; I’m just taking a break.  Just leave me alone for once. I’ll start it as soon as I get to the next level. 

Two hours later…

Mom: Hey Sweetie, it’s 11 pm, lights out.

Johnny:  I can’t go to bed, I have to do my math homework and work on that paper.  I’m so stressed out!  My English teacher hates me.  No matter what I do, he just gives me a bad grade.

If so, you are not alone.  I attended a fascinated workshop called Stress and Avoidance: Implications for College Students with Learning Differences led by a team of professionals from New Frontiers in Learning who specialize in helping students with learning differences successfully transition to college.

Students with strong executive functioning skills know how to turn stress into action.  They use deadlines and heavy workloads as motivators to problem solve, ask for help, and use past success to drive their work habits and time management skills.  For neurotypical students, stress is acute, it pushes them to move forward.

However, for students with ADHD, anxiety, depression or other learning differences, stress can become chronic.  And chronic stress leads to avoidant behavior such as playing video games, watching Netflix, etc.  These students lack the problem solving, self-advocacy and executive functioning skills to manage their stress and avoiding the work seems easier than facing the daunting task of doing it. They turn to low-stress activities such as video games, TV, or even sports and filmmaking because it provides immediate gratification in an area that matches their skills.

These students avoid their work not because they are lazy or unmotivated, but because they lack the skills they need to organize themselves and prioritize. They need help developing the skills that will lead to success. So what are these skills and how can we help students develop them?

Executive Functioning describes higher order learning that allows individuals to manage their behavior to accomplish a goal. They include:

  • Inhibitory control: Can you control your actions?
  • Self-regulation: Can you manage emotions and behaviors?
  • Cognitive flexibility: Can you change course if necessary?
  • Working memory: Can you hold information in your mind to do a task or apply that information in a different way later?
  • Planning: Can you plan ahead and perform a sequence of steps?
  • Getting started: Can you initiate an assignment?
  • Persistence: Can you keep with a task even if it’s difficult or challenging?
  • Organizing (your environment and thoughts): Can you organize your space and your ideas to get them down on paper?
  • Meta cognition: Can you learn how to learn? 

Executive function skills are often more important than IQ for students to succeed and unfortunately, students with learning differences often have difficulty in several of these areas.

But students can develop many of these skills through a combination of therapy, tutoring, coaching, and in some instances medication.  The more students understand how their EF skills are inhibiting them, the more they can get a handle on what tools they need to compensate in order to succeed.

Self-Advocacy requires students to understand their strengths and weaknesses and articulate what they need for success.  Students with a learning difference should have a clear understanding of their diagnosis and what accommodations they will need to help them overcome it.  One of my clients had dysgraphia and needed to use a computer in all of his classes to translate worksheets and assignments into a format he could use.  He was aware of his challenge from an early age and became a master at computer learning.  He could advocate clearly for his needs and as a result had a strong level of success in high school. The more students learn to self-advocate in high school, the stronger the likelihood of success in transitioning to college.

Active Problem-Solving comes naturally to successful students.  Faced with a problem, they look to past successes, ask for help or brainstorm for ways to overcome it.  However, students with learning differences develop chronic stress, which may cause them to shut down when faced with a problem. For example, Jane has a paper to write for English 101.  She tries to write her ideas down, but a) she doesn’t know what the professor wants and b) doesn’t know how to get started.  So instead of going to the writing center or making an appointment with the professor or even asking her roommate for help, she decides to watch the entire series of the Gilmore Girls.  She makes an excuse to the professor and gets an extension.  But now the second paper is due in two weeks.  She has dug herself into a deep hole.  How is she going to get herself out of this?  What would Rory from Gilmore Girls do?  Rory would never get herself in this situation begin with!! So she is more stressed out and anxious.  She can’t tell her parents because they will kill her. She decides to re-watch Gossip Girl instead and she can just deal with it later.

On the outside it looks like Jane is irresponsible, but really she is struggling with how to solve her problem; lacking the skills, she turns to avoidance.  Students like Jane can learn to break down larger assignments into smaller pieces.  They can be coached to ask for help at the first sign of distress and create a support system to help them succeed.

The ideal time to develop these skills is before you leave for college.  As students, understanding your strengths and weaknesses and what you need to succeed is critical.  As parents, letting your child take the reins and learn to self-advocate as early as possible is also key.  It’s much less costly for them to fail while still at home versus while they’re in college. 

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