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Exploring Avoidance Behaviour
Emotional Development
11 April 2024

Exploring Avoidance Behaviour: Know It When You See It

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Avoidance and challenge go hand in hand. When we’re uncomfortable, our mind will turn to trying to eliminate that. Whilst this can be healthy, we need to know ourselves and the nature of avoidance to be able to make the right choices when faced with it.


Delve into avoidance behaviour, especially in young people and explore its roots in fear and desire and its impact on personal growth and learning. Through engaging examples and practical advice, learn parent and educator strategies to identify and help children navigate these behaviours, fostering resilience and emotional intelligence.

  • Avoidance behaviour stems from fear and desire, influencing identity and decision-making in challenging situations.
  • Early reactions to challenges in youth often manifest as avoidance, hindering learning and personal growth.
  • Disengagement is an early sign of avoidance, including changing subjects, being vague, and rationalising actions.
  • Understanding and addressing avoidance is key to developing resilience and handling feelings rather than avoiding situations.

Exploring Avoidance Behaviour

Most of our behaviours are driven by two primary factors, fear and desire.

  • Behaviours driven by desire and fear shape decisions and identity formation.
  • Fear of judgement or rejection often leads to avoidance behaviour in challenging situations.
  • Recognizing and engaging with avoidance behaviour can foster resilience.

There’s things we want, like acceptance, food, sleep, fun, novelty and there’s things that we fear like judgement, pain, discomfort, exclusion.

The intersection between these two driving forces is where our decisions and choices begin to emerge, where we will shape our identities based on the paths we choose. We might be lonely, so we think about trying to make friends. But we’re afraid of being judged or ridiculed or being rejected and so we don’t try, or we instigate failure by only barely trying.

When we’re facing these challenging moments, especially when we’re young, one of the key behaviours that we’ll exhibit is known as “Avoidance Behaviour”. This is where through our choices, actions and behaviours, we try to diminish or reduce our exposure to these moments. Learning to watch for, and engage in avoidance behaviour is a powerful pathway to better resilience.

No Way Around It, Challenge Is Hard

Challenges are supposed to be difficult, because that’s how we grow.

  • Challenges outside comfort zones are essential for growth but can be daunting.
  • Early enjoyment in new endeavours can fade, leading to avoidance as adversity hits.
  • Identifying early signs of avoidance can prevent it from escalating to refusal.

If challenges weren’t difficult, or were within our circle of comfort and ability, then it wouldn’t be a challenge! However, especially for young people, this means that they’re often rarely equipped with either the strategies or the personal experience to face this adversity.

For that reason, often the early reactions to challenge will be avoidance. A young person might enrol in a program (like Risky Kids!) and at the start of their journey everything is fun and exciting and learning is easy because it’s all the basics! But as learning slows down, challenge and adversity begins to emerge. They need to be persistent in order to succeed, and persistence is hard and involves failure and frustration.

Our young person begins to weigh the pros and cons. They might stop trying as hard in class, to avoid the frustration of failure, but now their learning has slowed and the classes aren’t as engaging because they’re not trying. They start to feel like they’re not good enough as other kids progress, and to avoid all of these feelings, they quit.

But how do we spot avoidance before it becomes refusal?

Disengagement and the Appearance of Avoidance

At Risky Kids we call the early collection of avoidance behaviours “disengagement”. This is because the manifestation of these behaviours is just that, a disengagement from the things that we’re participating in which often begins a cycle of avoidance.

  • Changing Subjects – When challenged the young person might leave to do other things or talk about unrelated topics,
  • Standing back in groups – When in group environments avoidance will express itself as hiding at the back.
  • Being vague about emotions – When we’re trying to avoid feelings, instead of saying them out loud we’ll use words like “bad” instead of “afraid”,
  • Describing thoughts rather than emotions – Someone avoiding their feelings will talk about how something might go wrong, instead of that they’re afraid of something going wrong,
  • Over Analysing – Avoidant behaviour will include rationalising, justifying, and making excuses for choices or actions,
  • Toxic Positivity – Contrarily, someone being avoidant can become overly excited and positive about challenge, adversity. This is their way of defusing anyone saying they’re not challenging themselves, because they’ll indicate how positive they’ve been, but use other reasons for why they won’t participate.

Avoidance Isn't Always About Fear

He Said It Was Easy, Then He Quit

Josh was a Risky Kid with lots of skill, however was often reckless, failing to reflect on behaviour or failure and constantly saying “this is easy”. His Coaches tried to get him to slow down, and improve his techniques but he would refuse. His skills weren’t able to proceed past intermediate Moves, and they were often hazardous.

This was his form of avoidance behaviour. He would be reckless in the classes, and change subjects by doing the moves and challenges he wanted to do. When asked why he didn’t want to do the set challenges or practice he’d describe his thoughts that they were boring and easy. This disengagement created a cycle, where he’d come to classes, not practice, not progress and only ever do things he wanted to do.

His parent got involved, claiming that he was being held back from progressing when he was more than capable, something they’d tell Josh as well. The team explained their reasoning to the parents, and that progressing him would be unsafe physically, and that his Mindsets still needed to be developed if he wanted to succeed in later steps. They pointed out that other kids in his class were progressing, and that he was being left behind.

The parent eventually unenrolled Josh because he began telling them that he was bored, and didn’t enjoy the program any more.

Avoidance Is Avoidance Of Feelings, Not Context

  • Avoidance behaviour aims to escape feelings, not the situation itself.
  • A young person’s request to leave is often to avoid overwhelming emotions.
  • Individual resilience varies; different circumstances trigger different responses in people.

One of the most critical distinctions you can understand about avoidance is that when we’re engaging in avoidance behaviour, we’re not trying to avoid a situation or circumstance. We’re trying to avoid the feeling that it triggers within us.

For example, a young person might turn up to Risky Kids for their first time, and immediately become upset and ask to leave. They’re not asking to leave Risky Kids, they haven’t even done a class yet! It’s a new environment, they don’t know our values, or our Coaches or the other Risky Kids.

What they want is to not feel overwhelmed and upset, and the way they achieve that is by leaving. This is proven by the fact that the next kid through the door won’t have a problem! It’s not just that this kid is more resilient, they’re just having different feelings. On a different day, under different circumstances, their experiences could be easily reversed.

Healthy & Unhealthy Avoidance

Avoidance has a role though. We’re not supposed to ignore it or try to circumvent it all the time.

  • Avoidance is necessary in harmful situations or to escape physical pain and emotional distress.
  • Distinguishing healthy from unhealthy avoidance requires understanding and examining our thoughts and feelings.
  • Sometimes avoiding or confronting situations is essential for growth, like ending unreciprocated friendships or facing job challenges.

Avoidance should kick in when we’re trying to leave a toxic or harmful relationship. Avoidance should kick in if we’re in physical pain and want it to stop. When we’re distressed or upset we should take action to get help, to navigate those feelings and move beyond them.

This is the challenge though. Every day we’re going to participate in avoidance behaviour in heaps of different situations. We need to begin to build up the skill set to be able to understand and examine our thinking to determine what’s healthy and what’s not. It’s never just the case that we can trust our own thoughts or feelings! We should believe that we can always be better.

Sometimes this means avoiding things when we normally wouldn’t, and learning that it’s OK and how to do it. Like realising we need to end a friendship where the other person never reciprocates our care or efforts, which we’ve been stuck in for a decade. Other times it’ll mean that we need to overcome our avoidance, like asking for a raise at work, even though we’re afraid of being rejected and having our manager tell us we’re not worth the extra money.

Exploring The Why Of Boredom with Dom

Being Bored Isn't Always Bad

I saw Dom in a class at one of our clubs. He was 7 and a half, so he was in our “Alpha+ Younger” program step where the kids have moved past the first steps and are starting to master the first set of Moves and Mindsets. I could see that he looked bored, he was often resting his head in his hands, slouching and not paying attention.

Despite this, when the Coaches would ask about Mindsets he’d put his hand up right away and give great answers. When they were practising Moves he’d be one of the best and put in heaps of effort. But as soon as they were done he’d be back to being dejected!

I gave his mum a call to ask how he’d been going, and she said that he was reluctant to come along and that he’d said it was boring. I had begun to put together an idea which I ran past mum to which she agreed, so I quickly went to Dom in his class and asked him how he’d feel about joining the older kids class! I told him I thought he was ready for the challenge if he did. His face lit up right away and for the rest of the class he was ecstatic. He immediately joined the older class afterwards, and not only did he re-engage right away, but he was outwardly much happier.

What Dom had been feeling was that he was in a class with “young” kids, because despite the class being 5-7yos, the rest of the kids were 5 and he was 7 ½, and also Dom was quite strong and fast. This made him feel like he was being treated younger than he was and that he wasn’t being challenged enough.

Those are the feelings he wanted to avoid and when we changed him into an older class, even though it was all the same Moves and the same Program Step, he felt better right away! His Avoidance Behaviour was a healthy one, but if it had been left unattended he would have ended up quitting. He didn’t have enough experience to know how to ask for help, or what his options were.

Learning More About Avoidance

Understanding what avoidance behaviour is is just the first step. Avoidance behaviour often turns into refusal behaviour and quitting. It’s important to know how to navigate these moments as they’re often critical junctures where we can learn the most about ourselves, and shape our identities.

Read on in our “Art Of Quitting” and “Stages of Becoming” article series to master how to understand and navigate avoidance behaviour to achieve deep, lasting resilience and help your Risky Kid to become their best!

Richard Williams

Richard Williams

Risky Kids Founder, Director of Programming

Richard Williams is a fitness industry consultant, gym owner, business coach and professional stunt actor with more than a decade of experience in the health and fitness industry. With an education in psychology and criminology, Richard blended life experience as a fitness industry consultant with Spartan Race, gym owner, elite-obstacle racer, ultra-runner and professional stunt actor to create the Risky Kids program.

Richard has a passion for enacting meaningful social change through all avenues of health and wellbeing and believes that obstacles are the way. Some of Richard’s key achievements include:

  • Key consultant/coordinator Spartan Race/Tough Mudder/Extreme Endurance
  • OCR World Championship Finalist –  Team & Solo (2015)
  • OCR World Championship Silver Medallist – Team Endurance (2018)
  • Professional film and television stunt performer for 15 years

Considered one of Australia’s foremost experts in the fields of fitness, wellbeing and behavioural science, Richard is frequently in demand as a guest speaker for relevant government and non-
government bodies and organisations. Speaking engagements centred on the success of the Risky Kids program, philosophy and approach have included:

  • Expert speaker/panellist Sports & Camp; Recreation Victoria and Outdoors Victoria forums
  • Closing expert speaker at the Australian Camps Association National Conference
  • Expert speaker at the National Fitness Expo, FILEX