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What Causes Maladaptive Behavior in Children?

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 significantly differs from what is expected for the person’s developmental levels.

These problem 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 such behavior.

boy yells at dad and pulls ipad maladaptive behavior definition

How Do They Develop

Scientists have found that maladaptive behaviors generally serve some psychological functions​1​.

There are generally two types of maladaptiveness.


Most maladaptive behaviors are coping mechanisms intended to reduce difficult feelings and increase positive emotions, but they usually don’t work​2​.

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 ramifications​3​


Over time, rewarded behaviors become habits, and chronic maladaptive behaviors can be triggered by cues such as negative emotions or environments​4​.

The process is often self-reinforcing, so the circumstances that initiated the behavior do not need to be present to trigger it anymore​5​.

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 of maladaptive behavior.

Antisocial behaviora

  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Anger outbursts
  • Ridiculing
  • Excessive talking​6​
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Damaging behavior


Some children avoid a particular situation that is anxiety-provoking.

  • Social situation avoidance
  • School refusal​7​


  • Substance abuse
  • Alcohol use
  • Video game addiction​8​

Non-Suicidal Self-Injury (NSSI)

Researchers have found that self-harm typically follows negative feelings such as feelings of distress. Self-injurious behavior seems to provide temporary relief of mental pain experienced by some children​9​.

Maladaptive daydreaming

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 addressed​10​.

Eating disorders

  • Binge-eating
  • Anorexia
  • Bulimia nervosa​11​


  • Stealing
  • Gang violence​12​

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 emotions and behavior is one of the biggest causes of maladaptive behavior. Children cannot calm their emotions when under extreme stress​13​.


Individuals who have experienced trauma feel threatened, endangered, or hurt. They tend to develop maladaptive coping strategies following traumatic events​14​.

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.

Internalizing problems

Children with mental health issues and internalizing problems often develop inappropriate behaviors.

  • Fear
  • Shyness
  • Social anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Phobia
  • Avoidant disorder

Externalizing problems

Externalizing issues that will cause problematic behaviors.

Personality disorders

Children suffering from personality disorders tend to have maladaptive regulation strategies.

  • Borderline personality disorder​15​
  • Antisocial personality disorder​16​

Developmental disorders

  • Developmental delays
  • Autism spectrum disorder​17​
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder 
  • Intellectual disability​18​

Also See: Trauma-Informed Parenting Practices

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 behaviors that can replace unhealthy behaviors. Adaptive skills such as taking deep breaths, exercising, and meditating are alternative behaviors that can help reduce psychological distress in an uncomfortable situation.

Besides teaching skill development, find out what caused the problematic behavior.

To reduce 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 interaction.

Valid their emotions so that they are confident in expressing their true feelings.

Professional help is recommended in severe cases.

Need Help Motivating Kids?

If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.

It gives you the steps you need to identify motivation issues in your child and the strategy you can apply to help your child build self-motivation and become passionate about learning.

Once you know this science-based strategy, motivating your child becomes easy and stress-free.


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    Tamir M. Why Do People Regulate Their Emotions? A Taxonomy of Motives in Emotion Regulation. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. Published online May 26, 2015:199-222. doi:10.1177/1088868315586325
  2. 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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    Marinier RP, Laird JE. Emotion-driven reinforcement learning. In Proceedings of the annual meeting of the cognitive science society. 2008;30(30).
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    Oostdam RJ, Koerhuis MJC, Fukkink RG. Maladaptive behavior in relation to the basic psychological needs of students in secondary education. Eur J Psychol Educ. Published online July 10, 2018:601-619. doi:10.1007/s10212-018-0397-6
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    Bigelsen J, Lehrfeld JM, Jopp DS, Somer E. Maladaptive daydreaming: Evidence for an under-researched mental health disorder. Consciousness and Cognition. Published online May 2016:254-266. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2016.03.017
  11. 11.
    Steinglass JE, Berner LA, Attia E. Cognitive Neuroscience of Eating Disorders. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Published online March 2019:75-91. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2018.10.008
  12. 12.
    Perez NM, Jennings WG, Baglivio MT. A Path to Serious, Violent, Chronic Delinquency: The Harmful Aftermath of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Crime & Delinquency. Published online December 21, 2016:3-25. doi:10.1177/0011128716684806
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    Izard CE, King KA, Trentacosta CJ, et al. Accelerating the development of emotion competence in Head Start children: Effects on adaptive and maladaptive behavior. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 2008:369-397. doi:10.1017/s0954579408000175
  14. 14.
    Littleton H, Axsom D, Grills-Taquechel AE. Longitudinal evaluation of the relationship between maladaptive trauma coping and distress: examination following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Anxiety, Stress & Coping. Published online May 2011:273-290. doi:10.1080/10615806.2010.500722
  15. 15.
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Updated on September 20th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *