Dealing with Avoidance Behaviors in Preschoolers

anxious boyThe preschool years are an amazing time in children’s lives. They have already learned many skills in their first few years and feel like they are on top of the world. They are at the age of “I can do it myself.”

At this age, children are egocentric and believe that everything in the world revolves around them. For instance, if you ask a preschooler what to get Daddy for Father’s Day, she may answer with a gift that she would like: “Legos! A Doll! Dora The Explorer!” It’s not her intention to be hurtful, of course – it’s just where she is functioning developmentally.

The Preschooler Wants The Best Of Both Worlds

In their quest for independence, preschoolers will be torn between wanting to be a baby and wanting to be a big kid. Babies get lots of attention because they need Mom or Dad’s help with everything. Preschoolers like that attention and thus may regress to “I need help” when they previously did a task independently. They want to do “big kid” things, but because their imaginations are thriving, they can also create scenarios in their minds that make ordinary events seem more scary to them. Therefore, they may try to avoid certain activities either because they feel they will miss out on time with Mom or Dad at home (attention) or because they fear that something bad could happen to them when they try a new adventure.

This could lead preschoolers to refuse to go on play dates independently, say they are sick and can’t go to school or camp, or simply refuse to get ready for any of these exciting “big kid” opportunities. Parents can confront these avoidance behaviors with some careful phrasing, active listening, and allowing their preschool-age children to exert their independence by making good choices for themselves whenever a choice is possible.

How to Confront Avoidance Behaviors:

As parents, we always want to know why a behavior is occurring, but…

1) Resist the temptation to ask preschoolers “why” they are exhibiting the particular avoidance behavior (e.g. don’t ask, “Why don’t you want to go to school?”). Young children will inevitably answer that question with “I don’t know”, which will inevitably frustrate parents.

2) Try talking with preschoolers about what they think about when they imagine going to school, camp, play dates, etc. You may be surprised to learn that your child is thinking about what you’ll be doing (in other words, what he or she will be missing out on) while the child is on this new adventure. It may not be that she doesn’t want to go, but rather that she can’t relax enough to allow herself to have a good time.

3) Separation anxiety is very common during the preschool years. Reassure your child that you (and she) will be ok while she is at school. You can tell your child your plan of errands, laundry, and other exciting events while she is off painting, playing in the sand, singing songs, and learning in school, camp, or at a friend’s house. This will allow her to imagine where Mommy will be while she is away from her.

4) If your child wants you to come with her on a play date, let her know that you are proud of her for trying something new and that you understand that when she goes somewhere new, it takes some time to get used to it. Tell her ahead of time that you can stay for 5 minutes and then you will kiss her goodbye and come back to pick her up in a little while. For preschool play dates, no more than 1 ½ to 2 hours is recommended. A shorter play date that ends on a positive note is preferred to a longer play date that doesn’t end well.

5) When your child doesn’t want to go somewhere that he really doesn’t have a choice in attending (like school) and is resisting getting ready, give her some choices. This allows her to be in control, even though her choice will not affect the fact that she has to go. She can choose which article of clothing to put on first. Or, make a game of it by setting a timer and see how quickly she can get ready. Or, have a race: see if she can be ready before you can have breakfast on the table.

If you feel your child is exhibiting excessive fears or anxiety during this stage, it may be time to consult a licensed clinical social worker or other professional to help ease the transition for you and your child.