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How to Deal with Externalizing Behavior in Children

What is Externalizing Behavior

Behavioral problems in childhood and adolescence can be categorized into externalizing behavior or internalizing behavior. Externalizing behavior is problem behavior directed outwardly toward others or the social environment. It is characterized as an under-controlled and out-directed mode of responding​1​.

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 like anger and hostility.

When left untreated, serious externalizing problems in young children can lead to externalized behavior disorders such as odd in children, conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder in adolescents.

A small angry girl shouting.

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, depression, shame, shyness, and anxiety disorders.

Externalizing problems are more likely to be overt and obvious to others, but internalizing ones tend to be subtle and often go unnoticed​2​.

When parents and teachers seek early intervention for behavioral problems, they often focus on children’s externalizing conduct but not internalizing issues.

Why are behavioral issues problematic

Children who externalize negative behaviors are at higher risk of juvenile delinquency and violence​3​.

Aggressive behavior in toddlerhood is a strong predictor of adult crime and adult antisocial behavior.

Research suggests developing externalizing problems depends on the child’s age. Behavioral issues can begin in early childhood or in early adolescence​4​.

If aggressive children exhibit persistently 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 an 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 symptoms​5​.

Examples of externalizing behavior

Here are some externalizing behavior examples​6​.

  • Throwing tantrum
  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Biting
  • Throwing objects
  • Verbal aggression
  • Hostile aggression
  • Relational Aggression
  • Disruption
  • oppositional/defiance
  • impulsivity/hyperactivity
  • Lying
  • Stealing
  • Bullying

Causes of externalizing behavior

The causes of behavioral problems involve a complex interplay among biological risk factors, family factors, and environmental factors.

Psychologists and researchers have painstakingly gathered known causes and risk factors for childhood external behavior. The risk factors can be divided into four groups – child characteristics, family factors, peer influences, and environment​7​.

Child characteristics

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 understanding​8​
  • Young maternal age, smoking, alcohol use, and substance abuse during pregnancy

Family Factors

  • Unresponsive parenting 
  • Lack of involvement or monitoring
  • Harsh discipline and parental hostility​9​
  • Controlling parents
  • Antisocial behavior, delinquency, and criminal behavior in biological parents
  • Marital conflicts between parents

Peer influences

  • Rejected by peers
  • Being bullied
  • Aggressive and deviant friends​10​

External Environment

  • Low socioeconomic status (SES), low household income​11​
  • Aggressive culture in community or school environment
  • Denser population
  • Higher crime rate

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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 behavior​12​.

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 therapy 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 to foster positive interactions​13​ and attachment security.

Positive parenting

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 children​14​.

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 behavior​15​.


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