What is externalizing behavior
Behavioral problems in childhood and adolescence can be categorized into being externalizing behavior or internalizing behavior. Externalizing behavior is behavior directed outwardly toward others or the social environment. It is characterized as an under-controlled and out-directed mode of responding1.
Rule-breaking behaviors or acts that violate social norms such as physical aggression and defiance are examples of externalizing behavior. They stem from externalizing emotions such as anger or hostility.
When left untreated, serious externalizing problems in children can lead to developmental disorders including oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or intermittent explosive disorder in adolescents.
Externalizing behavior vs internalizing behavior
While externalizing behavior is behavior directed to external parties, internalizing behavior is directed inwardly to the person themselves. Internalizing behaviors include sadness, fear, anxiety, depression, shame, and shyness.
Externalizing problems are more likely to be overt and obvious to others, but internalizing ones tend to be subtle and often go unnoticed by others2.
When parents and teachers seek intervention for behavioral problems, they often focus on children’s externalizing conduct.
Why are behavioral issues problematic
Children who externalize their behavior in childhood are at higher risk of juvenile delinquency and violence3.
Aggressive behavior in toddlerhood and childhood is also a strong predictor of adult crime and adult antisocial behavior.
Research suggests there are age differences at which children develop externalizing problems. Behavioral issues can begin in early childhood or in early adolescence in child development4.
If aggressive children exhibit persistent high levels of externalizing issues, they are at a high risk of developing bullying, lying, and fighting in childhood, as well as more serious behaviors, such as cruel animal treatment, vandalism, and aggressive criminal behavior in adolescence.
Social behavior problems can also start during early adolescence for some youth. This is usually the result of association with deviant peers.
High levels of externalizing problems are often accompanied by high levels of internalizing mental health problems. Many conduct problems are associated with failures in social situations that, in turn, lead to anxious children with depressive symptoms5.
Examples of externalizing behavior
Here are some externalizing behavior examples6.
- Throwing tantrum
- Throwing objects
- Verbal aggression
- Hostile aggression
- Relational Aggression
Causes of externalizing behavior
The causes of behavioral problems involve a complex interplay among biological risk factors, family and social risk factors.
Psychologists and researchers have painstakingly gathered known causes and risk factors for childhood externalizing behavior. The risk factors can be divided into four groups – child characteristics, family factors, peer influences, and environment7.
A number of child characteristics have been shown to be associated with high levels of behavior problems.
- difficult-irritable-oppositional characteristics
- Impulsive behavior and lack of inhibition
- A deficit in executive function and attention
- Lack of remorse, empathy, or emotional understanding8
- Young maternal age, smoking, alcohol use, and drug abuse during pregnancy
- Unresponsive parenting
- Lack of involvement or monitoring
- Harsh discipline and parental hostility9
- Controlling parents
- Antisocial behavior, delinquency, and criminal behavior in biological parents
- Marital conflicts in parents
- Rejected by peers
- Being bullied
- Aggressive and deviant friends10
- Low socioeconomic status (SES)11
- Aggressive culture in community or school environment
- Denser population
- Higher crime rate
How to treat externalizing behavior
Parent management training (PMT)
PMT is found to be effective in treating oppositional, aggressive, and antisocial behavior in children.
In this treatment procedure, parents are trained to help children develop constructive behavior and decrease deviant behavior12.
According to research, response to parent training is often influenced by factors that aren’t directly related to the child, such as socioeconomic status and maternal mental health.
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)
PCIT is a widely available program for parents with children who exhibit problematic behavior at ages 2 to 7.
The behavioral parent training intervention was developed based on social learning and attachment theories. It is designed to reduce problematic behavior by improving parenting skills and fostering positive interactions13.
Positive parenting is a parenting philosophy that promotes positive interactions and mutual respect. Parents can teach their children proper behavior by using positive discipline instead of harsh punishment.
Positive parenting tends to result in less antisocial behavior and more social adjustment in children14.
Psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy
Research shows that psychotherapy for children is also one of the best ways to deal with behavioral and emotional problems. The treatment can alleviate psychological distress, reduce maladaptive behavior, and increase adaptive behavior15.
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