What Is Maladaptive Behavior
Maladaptive behavior is behavior that interferes with an individual’s ability to function in daily life or adjust to difficult situations. It is significantly different from what is expected for the individual’s developmental level.
These behaviors are often disruptive and dangerous. They are usually seen as misbehavior or bad behavior in children.
Thus, children are often reprimanded rather than helped to change their behaviors.
How Do They Develop
Scientists have found that maladaptive behaviors generally serve some psychological functions1.
There are generally two types of maladaptive behavior.
Most maladaptive behaviors are coping mechanisms intended to reduce difficult feelings and increase positive emotions, but in reality, they usually don’t work2.
A child chooses a strategy from the available repertoire and learns through observing the consequences.
A strategy that helps them meet the goal of removing uncomfortable feelings or increasing positive feelings is reinforced. A strategy that fails to achieve such a goal will have a lower chance of being repeated.
This type of emotion-driven reinforcement learning process usually has other negative ramifications3.
Over time, rewarded behaviors become habits and the chronic maladaptive behaviors can be triggered by cues such as emotions or environments4.
The process is often self-reinforcing, so the circumstances that initiated the behavior do not need to be present to trigger it anymore5.
As a result, it usually follows a self-destructive pattern.
Maladaptive Behavior Examples
Maladaptive coping mechanisms in children may include a wide range of actions, from mildly disruptive to dangerous.
Here are some common examples.
- Aggressive behavior
- Anger outbursts
- Excessive talking6
- Compulsive behavior
- Damaging behavior
Some children avoid anxiety-provoking situations such as
- Social situation avoidance
- School refusal7
- Substance abuse
- Alcohol abuse
- Video game addiction8
Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI)
Researchers have found that self-harm typically follows negative feelings such as feelings of distress. Self-harm seems to provide some relief from the mental pain experienced by some children9.
Everyone engages in occasional daydreaming but some children spend much of their time daydreaming with well-developed plots and characters.
Extensive fantasy activity can interfere with academic or interpersonal functioning by replacing human interaction.
Excessive amounts of daydreaming are a mental health condition that must be addressed10.
- Bulimia nervosa11
- Gang violence12
Maladaptive Behavior Causes
A variety of stressful situations and events can lead to maladjustment. Here are some categories of causes of maladaptive behavior.
Lack of emotional regulation
A child’s inability to regulate their emotions and behavior is one of the biggest causes of maladaptive behavior. Children cannot calm their emotions when under extreme stress13.
Individuals who have experienced trauma feel threatened, endangered, or hurt. They tend to develop maladaptive coping strategies following traumatic events14.
Life adversity can take many forms and occur at any point in a person’s life.
Examples of trauma include physical, mental, or sexual abuse, natural disaster, and life-threatening attack.
Children with mental health issues and internalizing problems often develop inappropriate behaviors.
- Social anxiety disorder
- Avoidant disorder
Externalizing issues that will cause problematic behaviors.
- Oppositional defiant disorder
- Conduct disorder
Children suffering from personality disorders tend to have maladaptive regulation strategies.
- Borderline personality disorder15
- Antisocial personality disorder16
- Developmental delays
- Autism spectrum disorder17
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Intellectual disability18
How to Treat Maladaptive Behavior
Untreated maladaptive behavior can negatively impact children’s and families’ quality of life.
While serious misbehavior requires the help of mental health professionals, many mild behavioral problems can be dealt with at home by parents.
The first thing to remember is that children will often misbehave when faced with overwhelming stress because they do not know how to handle it.
Instead of punishing them, help your child develop adaptive behavior that can be used in place of the maladaptive behavior. Adaptive skills such as taking deep breaths, doing exercise, and meditating are alternative behaviors that can help reduce psychological distress in negative situations.
Besides teaching new skills, find out what caused the problematic behavior.
To reduce feelings of frustration or helplessness, allow autonomy to give them a sense of control and mastery over their environment and themselves.
Teach them social skills to alleviate their feelings of anxiety about social engagement.
Valid their emotions so that they are confident in expressing their true feelings.
Professional help is recommended in severe cases.
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- 2.Bushman BJ. Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online June 2002:724-731. doi:10.1177/0146167202289002
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