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What Causes Maladaptive Behavior in Children?

| How Do Maladaptive Behaviors Develop | Examples | Causes | How to Treat |

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.

boy yells at dad and pulls ipad

How Do They Develop

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

There are generally two types of maladaptive behavior.

Goal-Directed

Most maladaptive behaviors are coping mechanisms intended to reduce difficult feelings and increase positive emotions, but in reality, 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​

Habitual

Over time, rewarded behaviors become habits and the chronic maladaptive behaviors can be triggered by cues such as 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.

Antisocial behavior

  • Tantrums
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Anger outbursts
  • Ridiculing
  • Excessive talking​6​
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Damaging behavior

Avoidance

Some children avoid anxiety-provoking situations such as

  • Social situation avoidance
  • School refusal​7​

Addiction

  • Substance abuse
  • Alcohol abuse
  • 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-harm seems to provide some relief from the 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​

Delinquency

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

Trauma

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 disorder
  • 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​

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.

References

  1. 1.
    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
  3. 3.
    Marinier RP, Laird JE. Emotion-driven reinforcement learning. In Proceedings of the annual meeting of the cognitive science society. 2008;30(30).
  4. 4.
    Wood W, Neal DT. A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review. Published online 2007:843-863. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.114.4.843
  5. 5.
    Graybiel AM. Habits, Rituals, and the Evaluative Brain. Annu Rev Neurosci. Published online July 1, 2008:359-387. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.29.051605.112851
  6. 6.
    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
  7. 7.
    Weisz JR, Hawley KM, Jensen Doss A. Empirically tested psychotherapies for youth internalizing and externalizing problems and disorders. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Published online October 2004:729-815. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2004.05.006
  8. 8.
    Han DH, Hwang JW, Renshaw PF. Bupropion sustained release treatment decreases craving for video games and cue-induced brain activity in patients with internet video game addiction. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Published online August 2011:108-117. doi:10.1037/2160-4134.1.s.108
  9. 9.
    Swerdlow BA, Pearlstein JG, Sandel DB, Mauss IB, Johnson SL. Maladaptive behavior and affect regulation: A functionalist perspective. Emotion. Published online February 2020:75-79. doi:10.1037/emo0000660
  10. 10.
    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
  13. 13.
    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.
    Carpenter RW, Trull TJ. Components of Emotion Dysregulation in Borderline Personality Disorder: A Review. Curr Psychiatry Rep. Published online December 13, 2012. doi:10.1007/s11920-012-0335-2
  16. 16.
    Holmes SE. Child Psychiatry and Human Development. Published online 2001:183-193. doi:10.1023/a:1026425304480
  17. 17.
    Matson J. Aggression and Tantrums in Children with Autism: A Review of Behavioral Treatments and Maintaining Variables. Journal of Mental Health Research in Intellectual Disabilities. Published online June 30, 2009:169-187. doi:10.1080/19315860902725875
  18. 18.
    Ando H, Yoshimura I. Prevalence of maladaptive behavior in retarded children as a function of IQ and age. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online September 1978:345-349. doi:10.1007/bf00924737

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the 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).

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