What Is Maladaptive Behavior? Definition And Symptoms

By Corrina Horne |Updated April 8, 2022

Children throw tantrums. Adults stomp their feet and yell. Children cry. Adults cry. Children throw things when they are furious. Adults hurl things when they feel rage. Maladaptive behaviors are undoubtedly a part of everyone’s life, in some capacity. Your child might exhibit maladaptive behavior, or you might witness your coworker’s occasional meltdowns. While it may seem a complex or alien term, maladaptive behavior is a frequent feature in the daily goings-on of human beings.

What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

To define maladaptive behavior, a quick glance at the words themselves is needed. The term “maladaptive” adds the prefix “mal-” to the word “adaptive.” The word “adaptive” means to adjust, modify, or alter. It is frequently seen in discussions about growth, education, and evolution, all of which place a heavy focus on forward-moving progression and continually rising to new expectations. The prefix “mal,” directly translated, means “bad” or “ill.” The psychological constructs surrounding maladaptive behavior do not quantify bad or ill behavior, so the term “maladaptive behavior” is used to describe behavior that adapts, modifies, or adjusts poorly.

Learn More About Your Child's Behaviors

What is maladaptive behavior, then? It is a series of behaviors by someone who reacts and behaves inappropriately to internal or external stimuli. A child practicing healthy adaptation to change, for instance, might ask their parent questions about changes in their schedule: “Why am I not going to school? What happened? What am I doing, instead? Are you staying home with me?” and so forth. A child engaging in maladaptive behavior might throw themselves to the ground, hammer their fists on the concrete, and scream. Although both are provoked by fear or discomfort, one successfully navigates the new terrain, while the other actually increases the sensations prompting the behaviors in the first place. This is why maladaptive behavior is given its moniker: it is not merely bad behavior, but behavior that does not help or actively hinders you from growing, changing, and navigating the world around you.

Who Uses Maladaptive Responses?

Maladaptive responses can be seen in people of all ages, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, and backgrounds. There are some populations, though, that seem particularly prone to utilizing maladaptive responses. These include people with mood and personality disorders, anxiety disorders, developmental delays, a history of anger, and a poor or lacking family structure. These types of environments are essentially breeding grounds for maladaptive behaviors, as children (or adults) whose only models for reacting have been maladaptive are likely to continue using these patterns. In children, maladaptive responses are usually called tantrums, but can also be termed “meltdowns,” and in adults, these responses are usually called disruptive or inappropriate behavior.

Maladaptive responses are not entirely relegated to the annals of mental illnesses and conditions. Addiction, abuse, and trauma can all cause maladaptive behaviors as well, as these types of behaviors are seeking to regain equilibrium when balance has been destroyed. If there never was a demonstration of equilibrium – or, in other terms, a “safe place” – there is no baseline to move back to. In all cases of maladaptive behavior, then, evaluation and potential treatment are excellent starting points. While maladaptive behavior might not all require extensive psychological treatment, it is a legitimate line of questioning to determine why your body or brain is not able to cope in healthy, productive ways.

Consequences of Maladaptive Behaviors

Aside from receiving reprimands at home, school, and work following the exhibition of maladaptive responses, there can be significant and long-lasting consequences. One of the most significant consequences of maladaptive behavior is alienation. In childhood, children who engage in maladaptive behaviors are less likely to have close friendships and may struggle attaining the respect or consideration of their elders. Maladaptive behaviors are very often not seen as behavioral responses to pain, discomfort, fear, or confusion but are frequently seen as expressions of laziness, disruptive tendencies, disrespect, or a lack of consideration, when most of these are usually not the case at all.

Maladaptive behavior can do more than alienate you from peers and authority figures, though. Because maladaptive behaviors can be outspoken and far-reaching, these types of behaviors can interfere with school, can get you into trouble at work, and could even wind up on the wrong side of the law if certain behaviors are not treated early enough. Maladaptive behavior almost always signals a need for help – legitimate, professional help – but may be overlooked until something serious occurs.

Maladaptive behavior may also be problematic in adult relationships, such as romantic relationships. If you are prone to outbursts of anger, periods of intense isolation, or extended moments of clingy or needy behavior, you might be engaged in maladaptive behavior. In the short term, these might require a simple heart-to-heart to find better ways to cope and communicate, but in a long-term arrangement, these behaviors can all quickly become reasons to terminate the relationship. This is particularly true if the maladaptive behaviors escalate into dangerous actions.

While maladaptive behaviors might be destructive in all walks of life, there are treatment options available. These treatments could come in the form of therapy at school, for school-age children, or a standard talk or behavioral therapist for adults. Therapists can help identify any persistent patterns of maladaptive behaviors and will likely be able to determine an underlying cause, whether that is a trauma, a significant source of anger or anxiety, or an actual disorder.

Maladaptive Behavior and Mental Disorders

Maladaptive behavior is particularly common in mental, mood, and personality disorders, as all of these conditions have some element of disruption, lack, or fear attached to them. Healthy minds don’t usually lead to maladaptation, but unhealthy minds frequently go there first. Anxiety and its related disorders are well-known for maladaptation, as these disorders frequently result in the isolation of their victims, and compound day by day. Depression can also lend itself to maladaptation, as apathy, lack of sleep, and listlessness can all be characterized as maladaptive behavior. Indeed, most mood disorders consider maladaptive behaviors a symptom of the condition.

Anxiety breeds maladaptive behaviors, too. In social anxiety disorder, a maladaptive behavior might be to avoid social situations altogether rather than putting systems in place to afford yourself support while in social situations. In post-traumatic stress disorder, avoidant behavior is an example of maladaptive behavior. It might work for a time, to keep your triggers at bay, but is not a long-term, healthy solution.

Developmental delays and mood and mental disorders are very often known for maladaptive behaviors, as is the case in Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and others. These conditions are all known for disruptive, repetitive, or self-stimulatory behaviors, all of which may fall under the umbrella of maladaptive. These behaviors are engaged in to elicit stimulation, deal with a lack of concentration, garner the attention of someone nearby, and more. The maladaptive behaviors engaged in often do not elicit the hoped-for response, if a response is delivered at all.

What Maladaptive Behavior Is

Learn More About Your Child's Behaviors

Maladaptive behavior is any form of behavior that is designed to respond, react, or adapt to a situation but is unable to do so effectively. Anger is a common form of maladaptive behavior. Shouting, throwing things, or injuring others is often done in anger to be heard, but all it does is succeed in silencing your point and magnifying your aggression. This is maladaptive, then, because it is ineffective in achieving its intended purpose.

Maladaptive behavior is often mistakenly called a number of things, most of them suggestive of character flaws or defects, and many of them entirely incorrect. Laziness, rashness, impulsivity, disregard, and absence have all been used to describe maladaptive behaviors. While these types of behavior might have some maladaptive elements to them, maladaptive behavior is rarely enacted intentionally. Instead, it is often as though the body or mind is on autopilot, delivering what seems like the best course of action for the moment, which spirals out of control or falls flat.

Maladaptive behavior is not necessarily tied to any one disorder, people group, or background. It can be in the families of the wealthy and well-to-do, just as easily as it can be in poverty. Maladaptive behavior may be an indicator of a less-than-ideal home life or childhood but could just as easily be derived from another source of fear, pain, or insecurity. Maladaptive behaviors do often come with a diagnosis. However, most people do not seek treatment of any kind until these behaviors have grown substantial enough to warrant a need for immediate treatment.

If you have or think you have maladaptive behaviors, or someone you know has them, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Family and friends can give you some honest feedback about your behavior, and an in-person or online therapist can assess what is going on in your mind. They can also create a treatment plan designed to help minimize some of the instances of maladaptive behavior and make room for healthier, more effective adaptations.

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) delivered online to treat maladaptive behaviors is effective. For example, a study showed the efficacy of online therapy for people who have social anxiety. Within a span of 12 sessions and a 3-month follow up, 24 participants found significant improvement in their social anxiety. This result is comparable to and in some cases better than face-to-face therapy. Online CBT was also proven to be beneficial for people with depression, disabilities, and quality of life issues.

BetterHelp Can Help

If you’re considering online therapy, BetterHelp can support you. Their online licensed professionals can help you learn positive ways to deal with situations that cause the maladaptive behaviors. If you’re living with someone who has maladaptive behaviors, then one of our online therapists will provide emotional support and understanding as you, along with your therapist, explore ways to healthily deal with the behaviors. Whether you have maladaptive behaviors or are living with someone who does, you can meet with an online therapist in the comfort of your own home or wherever else it’s most comfortable to meet with a therapist, even your car. You will also meet at a time that’s convenient for you. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“I really like her approach, she always finds ways to encourage desirable behaviors according to my personal situation and needs. Happy that she is my counselor.”

“Peter is a good listener, in a very proactive way. He always give you guidance on how you deal with your emotions and how to reach the behavior you would like to have towards matters that worry you or defy you. I made great progress with him, and I love his approach.”

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.