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40 Maladaptive Behavior Examples, Causes & How to Deal With

Maladaptive behavior disrupts daily functioning and adaptation to difficult situations, often manifesting differently in children and adults. There are 9 types, including antisocial, daydreaming, eating disorders, anxiety, personality disorders, addiction, self-harm, delinquency, and avoidance. Examples include tantrums, aggressive behavior, chronic procrastination, and various addictions.

Maladaptation is problematic because it can cause psychological distress, self-esteem issues, impaired daily functioning, professional struggles, relationship difficulties, physical health issues, and negative reinforcement patterns. There are 4 leading causes of maladaptive behavior: adverse childhood experiences, a lack of emotional regulation, previously learned coping mechanisms and neurodevelopmental disorders.

To deal with maladaptive behavior, acknowledge the need for change, identify triggers, develop healthy coping mechanisms, replace maladaptive behavior, build a support network, seek professional help, and enroll in treatment.

Related concepts include maladaptation in parenting, emotions, personality traits, culture, anxiety, thinking, motivation, and situations such as ASD or the classroom.

boy yells at dad and pulls ipad, maladjustment response

What Is Maladaptive Behavior

Maladaptive behavior interferes with an individual’s daily functioning and adaptation to difficult situations. Maladaptive behavior is abnormal behavior, different significantly from what is expected for an individual’s developmental level. They are often disruptive and dangerous. 

Maladaptive behavior in childhood is usually called misbehavior or bad behavior. Thus, children are often reprimanded rather than helped to change those behaviors.

In adults, maladaptive behaviors prevent adaptation to or coping with stressors healthily. They can manifest in more nuanced ways disguised as unhealthy habits or coping mechanisms, such as chronic procrastination, workaholism, or perfectionism, that are excessive and interfere with the person’s well-being.

What is the difference between adaptive and maladaptive behavior?

The key difference between adaptive and maladaptive behavior is their impact on an individual’s ability to function effectively and thrive in different situations. 

Adaptive behavior is the opposite of maladaptive behavior. Adaptive behaviors promote one’s well-being. They are functional, effective, and developmentally appropriate. In contrast, maladaptive behaviors hinder one’s well-being. They create difficulties in daily life, thwart personal growth, result in negative consequences, and are developmentally inappropriate.

What are the types of maladaptive behavior?

There are 9 types of maladaptive behavior.​1–6​

  1. Antisocial behavior or social maladaptation: Behavior that violates a written or unwritten social norm, such as aggression, disruption, and rude behavior.
  2. Maladaptive daydreaming: Excessive fantasies that allow one to escape reality and replace human interaction.
  3. Avoidance: Avoiding anxiety-provoking situations.
  4. Eating disorders: Food-related disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.
  5. Mental disorders: Psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, panic attacks, and dissociation.
  6. Personality disorders: Patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that deviate significantly from cultural expectations, causing distress and impairment in daily functioning, such as borderline, paranoid, and avoidant personality disorders.
  7. Addiction: Using addiction as self-medication to manage anxiety, like drugs, alcohol, and video gaming.
  8. Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI): Using self-harm to provide relief from the mental pain experienced.
  9. Delinquency: Criminal activities, such as theft, vandalism, and disorderly conduct.

What are maladaptive behavior examples?

Here are 40 maladaptive behavior examples.

  1. Tantrums
  2. Aggressive behavior
  3. Anger outbursts
  4. Excessive talking
  5. Passive aggression
  6. Compulsive behavior
  7. Damaging behavior
  8. Ridiculing
  9. Maladaptive daydreaming
  10. Chronic procrastination
  11. Avoiding social situations
  12. Withdrawal & isolation
  13. Jealousy
  14. Impulsivity and recklessness
  15. School refusal
  16. Healthcare avoidance
  17. Avoiding intimacy
  18. Phobia
  19. Anorexia nervosa
  20. Bulimia nervosa
  21. Binge eating disorder
  22. Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID)
  23. Pica
  24. Anxiety
  25. Depression
  26. Personality disorders
  27. Dissociation
  28. Possessiveness
  29. Substance abuse
  30. Alcohol addiction
  31. Sex addiction
  32. Video gaming addiction
  33. Exercise addiction
  34. Self-harm
  35. Workaholism
  36. Perfectionism
  37. Stealing
  38. Vandalism
  39. Gang violence
  40. Pathological lying

How does maladaptive behavior impact an individual?

Maladaptive behavior impacts an individual in ways.

  1. Psychological impact: Maladaptive behavior such as substance abuse and recklessness can exacerbate mental health issues, increasing anxiety and emotional distress.
  2. Self-esteem issues: Maladaptive behaviors can affect an individual’s self-esteem and self-perception, often leading to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, or shame.
  3. Impaired daily functioning: Individuals with maladaptive behavior may struggle to focus, make decisions, or manage tasks effectively, affecting their day-to-day activities.
  4. Struggle in professional life: Chronic procrastination, avoiding challenges, and unprofessional conduct can impact productivity and work performance.
  5. Relationship difficulties: Socially maladaptive behavior, such as aggression and pathological lying, can strain communication, spark conflict, and damage trust, making it challenging to form or maintain healthy relationships.
  6. Physical health impact: Chronic stress and anxiety associated with maladaptive behaviors can have physical health repercussions, including cardiovascular problems, weakened immune response, and other stress-related conditions.
  7. Negative pattern reinforcement: Maladaptive behaviors can create a cycle of negative reinforcement, where short-term relief leads to long-term reinforcement of the behavior, making it more ingrained and more challenging to change.
  8. Child development: A child’s social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical development and self-concept can be severely impacted by dysfunctional behavior.
  9. Parenting efficacy: Maladaptive parenting, such as emotional dysregulation, can lead to harsh punishment, damaging a child’s self-esteem and straining the parent-child relationship.

What are the causes of maladaptive behavior?

There are 4 causes of maladaptive behavior.​7–15​

  1. Adverse childhood experiences
  2. Lack of emotional regulation
  3. Learned coping strategy from childhood
  4. Neurodevelopmental disorder

Maladaptive behavior typically develops to serve some psychological functions in childhood. In their first year, babies begin mastering self-soothing through behaviors like thumb-sucking and looking away. As children grow, they develop healthy coping skills, given there are mild and moderate stress, positive coping models, and the right level of age-appropriate support.

However, when faced with overwhelming stress, such as child abuse or neglect, or a lack of guidance, children may resort to developing their problematic coping to protect themselves, according to a 2016 study conducted at The Pennsylvania State University.

Initially, these behaviors are goal-directed coping mechanisms intended to reduce difficult feelings or increase positive emotions, and they are adaptive.​16​

Over time, the behavior evolves into maladaptive habits and can be triggered by emotions or surroundings.

Because the process is often self-reinforcing, the circumstances that initiated the behavior do not need to be present to trigger it again. The behavior becomes maladaptive, ingrained, and habitual in adulthood.

Children with developmental disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Smith-Magenis Syndrome, and learning disabilities tend to develop maladaptive patterns of behavior. For example, a 2005 study at Stanford University revealed that individuals with ASD were prone to maladaptive behavior due to less use of emotional regulation skills, such as reframing problems.​17,18​

How to deal with maladaptive behavior

Unaddressed maladaptive behavior can negatively impact an individual and their family’s quality of life. Different types of maladaptive behavior may require other interventions, and the specific steps will depend on the severity of the behavior.

To deal with maladaptive behavior, here are 7 general steps.

  1. Acknowledge: Recognizing the need to change is the first step in positively dealing with maladaptive behavior.
  2. Identify triggers:  Note the situations, feelings, or thought patterns that typically come before the maladaptive behavior. You can use an app or journal to keep track of your behavior patterns and identify problematic areas.
  3. Develop healthy coping: Learn healthier coping mechanisms. This may include reframing negative thoughts, learning stress reduction techniques, or exercising to improve endorphin releases and mood.
  4. Replace maladaptive behavior: Depending on the identified patterns, develop healthier alternatives. Make a conscious effort to substitute maladaptive behavior with more productive ones. However, changing an old habit is challenging. Keep practicing and be patient with yourself.
  5. Build a support network: Reach out to friends and family to build a strong circle of understanding individuals who can help you catch maladaptive behaviors and provide encouragement.
  6. Seek professional help: If the maladaptive behavior falls into the following categories, it is advisable to involve professionals for help, including therapists, psychologists, family counselors, and social workers.
    • Self-injurious behavior or thoughts of it
    • Addiction
    • Signs of depression
    • Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • Causing anxiety
    • Disrupting daily functioning
    • Creating difficulties in relationships
  7. Enroll in treatment: If needed, seek treatment such as talk therapy, anger management, exposure therapy, addiction counseling, Alcoholics Anonymous, mindfulness and relaxation practices, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

How to deal with maladaptive behavior in children

To deal with maladaptive behavior in children, here are 7 steps.

  1. Stay calm: Remember that children often misbehave or show maladaptive social behavior when faced with overwhelming stress because they do not know how to handle it. Instead of punishing them, focus on skills. Addressing maladaptive behavior isn’t about discipline but equipping your child with healthy coping mechanisms for stress. Punishment doesn’t build skills, only fear.
  2. Teach healthy coping skills: Adaptive coping skills such as taking deep breaths, doing exercise, and meditating are alternatives that can help children reduce psychological distress in stressful situations. Teach them social skills to alleviate their feelings of anxiety about social engagement.
  3. Find out the cause: Besides teaching new skills, discover the underlying reasons for maladaptive behavior. When did it start? What was the circumstance? Who was involved? Learn about trauma-informed parenting.
  4. Validate their feelings: Validation helps them feel confident expressing their emotions rather than relying on maladaptive coping.
  5. Reduce stress: To reduce frustration or helplessness, allow autonomy to give them a sense of control and mastery over their environment and themselves.
  6. Be supportive: Help your child practice and use adaptive strategies. If they slip and make a mistake, be empathetic, remind them, and encourage them to use new techniques. Be patient and supportive because it takes time and practice to change.
  7. Seek help: Professional help is recommended in severe cases.

How do you identify maladaptive behavior?

Determining if behavior is truly maladaptive can be nuanced, as normalcy is subjective and exists on a spectrum. However, some critical considerations for assessment include the following 3 steps.

  1. Evaluate the impact on life: Examine the behavior’s impact on the individual’s life. Does it significantly disrupt their routines, relationships, or emotional state? Are they experiencing more conflicts, distress, or lost opportunities tied to the behavior? If so, it may be maladaptive.
  2. Analyze the behavioral patterns: Behaviors like compulsiveness, destructiveness, poor emotional regulation, isolation, or inflexibility could signal underlying issues. However, context is critical.
  3. Compare the behavior to context: The person’s culture, developmental stage, and unique circumstances matter. Consider frequency and severity within their situations. Infrequent, mild quirks likely aren’t problematic.

It’s important to recognize that not all unique behaviors are maladaptive; some traits or quirks may be harmless. A professional evaluation is advisable to obtain an accurate diagnosis and tailored advice for problematic behaviors.

What is maladaptive coping?

Maladaptive coping refers to unhealthy ways of dealing with stress, difficult emotions, or challenging situations. Everyone copes with challenges differently, but maladaptive coping mechanisms are counterproductive. They tend to worsen the situation in the long run.

What is maladaptive parenting?

Maladaptive parenting refers to parenting styles or behaviors that can negatively impact a child’s emotional, psychological, or social development. This can include a wide range of actions or inactions. Overt maladaptive parenting behavior that is easily recognizable includes child abuse and neglect, and covert, subtle maladaptive parenting includes overprotectiveness and emotional manipulation.

Here are 7 examples of maladaptive parenting.

  1. Inconsistent parenting: Unpredictable, erratic parenting approaches, like alternating between permissive and authoritarian styles.
  2. Emotional neglect: Failure to meet a child’s basic emotional needs like comfort, attention, and affection.
  3. Overly controlling parenting: Excessive control over a child’s life and decisions, stifling their independence and self-expression.
  4. Strict parenting: Imposing rigid rules and harsh punishment while allowing little self-expression.
  5. Parental alienation: A parent turning a child against the other parent through criticism and false accusations.
  6. Harsh discipline: Harsh discipline relies on extreme, physical punishments that are overly punitive.
  7. Dysfunctional family interactions: Dysfunctional family dynamics, such as constant conflict or lack of support, negatively impact a child’s emotional well-being.

What are maladaptive emotions?

The term “maladaptive emotions” can mean one of the following two things depending on the context.

  • Overwhelming negative emotions disrupting everyday life: Maladaptive emotions often mean intense feelings such as anger, anxiety, or sadness that can result in impulsive actions, problems in relationships, and struggles with stress management.
  • Emotional patterns in the alternative model for personality disorder (PDs): Maladaptive emotions could also refer to the five domains of personality traits in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). They are negative affectivity, detachment, psychoticism, antagonism, and disinhibition. These domains include characteristics such as persistent anger, emotional detachment, eccentric experiences, deceitful behavior, and impulsive tendencies.

What are maladaptive traits?

Maladaptive traits in humans refer to a personality characteristic that is counterproductive or causes difficulties in an individual’s daily life. It’s not simply a quirk or preference but a tendency that significantly hinders one’s ability to function.

What are the 5 maladaptive traits?

According to Section III of DSM-5, the alternative model for personality disorders outlines the following 5 maladaptive personality traits (domains).​19​

  1. Negative affect: Always feeling angry, anxious, or down.
  2. Detachment: Difficulty connecting with others and lacking interest in social life.
  3. Psychoticism: Unusual experiences or beliefs and difficulty telling what’s real.
  4. Antagonism: Being mean, manipulative, or easily angered.
  5. Disinhibition: Acting impulsively and having difficulty controlling urges.

What is maladaptive culture?

Maladaptive culture refers to a set of cultural norms, practices, beliefs, or values within a group that are counterproductive or harmful to the well-being or development of its members. These cultural aspects may have been adaptive or beneficial in the past but have become maladaptive due to changes in the environment, technology, social structures, or other factors. 

It is important to recognize that cultures are complex and constantly evolving. What might be considered maladaptive may be adaptive in a different cultural context.​20​

Here are 7 examples of maladaptive culture.

  1. Resistance to beneficial change
  2. Harmful traditional practices
  3. Rigid adherence to traditions or social structures
  4. Inequality or oppression of members in certain sub-groups
  5. Superstition or discouragement of critical thinking
  6. Promotion of unhealthy behavior
  7. Overemphasis on short-term goals

What is maladaptive anxiety?

Maladaptive anxiety, clinical anxiety, or anxiety disorder refers to worry, nervousness, or fear that is excessive, irrational, and chronic. Maladaptive anxiety tends to be disproportionate to the situation and interferes significantly with a person’s daily functioning. 

Other characteristics of maladaptive anxiety include the following.

  1. Excessive Worry
  2. Physical symptoms
  3. Avoidance behavior
  4. Compulsive actions
  5. Difficulty concentrating
  6. Disrupted sleep
  7. Irritability
  8. Social withdrawal
  9. Panic attracts
  10. Intrusive thoughts

There are different types of anxiety disorders. Some common types are the following.

  1. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  2. Society anxiety disorder (SAD)
  3. Panic disorder
  4. Separation anxiety disorder
  5. Phobia
  6. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  7. Selective Mutism

What is maladaptive thinking?

Maladaptive thinking is patterns of thought that are unhealthy or counterproductive and can contribute to psychological distress. 

Here are maladaptive thinking examples.

  1. Black-and-white thinking (all-or-nothing thinking)
  2. Catastrophizing
  3. Overgeneationzation
  4. Personalization
  5. Emotional reasoning
  6. Mental filtering
  7. Labeling
  8. Mind reading
  9. Fortune telling
  10. “Should” statements

What is maladaptive motivation?

Maladaptive motivation is the drive that pushes individuals to engage in behaviors that are not beneficial or hinder achieving goals in a given situation.

Here are 10 characteristics of maladaptive motivation.

  1. Perfectionism
  2. Fear-driven
  3. Avoidance of success or failure
  4. Short-term gratification focused
  5. Setting unhealthy or unrealistic goals
  6. External validation seeking
  7. Acting on external pressure
  8. People pleasing
  9. Rebellion
  10. Narcissism

What is maladaptive behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Maladaptive behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to repetitive patterns of behavior that are counterproductive, harmful, or interfere with daily functioning. 

Although behaviors such as hand flapping or lining up objects are often associated with ASD, they do not inherently qualify as maladaptive. These behaviors only become problematic if they negatively impact the individual’s well-being or impair their functioning in different environments.

Examples of maladaptive behavior in ASD include the following.

  1. Self-injurious behavior
  2. Aggression
  3. Tantrums or meltdowns
  4. Inflexibility
  5. Disruptive behaviors
  6. Antisocial behaviors
  7. Non-compliance
  8. Inflexibility
  9. Sensory seeking or avoiding
  10. Elopement

What are maladaptive behaviors in the classroom?

Maladaptive behaviors in the classroom refer to behaviors that significantly disrupt learning, teaching, or the overall well-being of students and teachers.

Here are 15 examples of maladaptive behaviors in the classroom.

  1. Disruptive behavior
  2. Aggression
  3. Non-compliance
  4. Emotional outbursts or tantrums
  5. Blurting answers or yelling
  6. Withdrawal or social isolation
  7. Oppositional behavior
  8. Perfectionism
  9. Excessive fidgeting or daydreaming
  10. Hyperactivity
  11. Self-injurious behavior
  12. Sensory processing issues
  13. Property destruction
  14. Bullying or teasing
  15. Excessive need for attention


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