What Is Maladaptive Behavior?

Medically reviewed by Aaron Dutil
Updated November 23, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Maladaptive behavior can be a part of everyone’s life in some capacity. For example, children may throw tantrums, adults may yell or throw things when angry, or your boss may lash out at you when they’re having a rough day. Though they’re not always particularly healthy or helpful, maladaptive behaviors can be a common coping mechanism used by people of all ages to deal with physical, emotional, and psychological distress. However, these behaviors can lead to alienation, relationship issues, and consequences at school or work and with the law. Maladaptive behavior may be more common for those with mental health and developmental disorders, but therapy can be a valuable tool for transforming them into healthier responses.

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Turn Maladaptive Behaviors Into Healthy Responses

Maladaptive Behavior Definition

In general, a maladaptive behavior is one that functions as a poor response to a situation or stimulus. They are the opposite of adaptive behaviors, which allow us to function in a healthy manner throughout our lives.  A child practicing healthy adaptation to change, for instance, might ask their parents questions about their new schedule: “Why am I not going to school? What happened? What am I doing instead? Are you staying home with me?” and so forth. Conversely, a child engaging in maladaptive behavior may express their challenging emotions through a tantrum.

Although both responses may be provoked by negative feelings, a child utilizing an adaptive behavior can successfully navigate the new terrain, while the other child may end up increasing the sensations that prompted the maladaptive behavior in the first place. 

Overall, maladaptive behavior is not merely bad behavior, but behavior that can actively hinder you from growing, changing, and navigating the world. An example would be avoidance behaviors, which can lead individuals to avoid situations that may induce fear, discomfort, or social anxiety. While this action can seem helpful in the short term, regularly engaging in avoidance behavior may lead to a reduction in social and cognitive growth.

This behavior may not be restricted to physical avoidance, as exemplified by one common maladaptive behavior, maladaptive daydreaming (MD). While daydreaming can be perfectly normal on its own, MD can involve daydreaming for hours on end to the point where it can begin to harm an individual’s well-being. Whether or not someone is displaying the signs of MD can be measured through the maladaptive dreaming scale, which can gauge normal and abnormal levels of daydreaming. Again, fantasizing can be a healthy behavior in certain amounts, but retreating into one’s own mind too often can be a maladaptive coping mechanism. 

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 may be particularly prone to utilizing maladaptive responses. These can include people who struggle with mood and personality disorders, anxiety disorders like social anxiety disorder, developmental delays, eating disorders, a history of anger, and dysfunctional families. Maladaptive responses can also be seen in those experiencing chronic illness; one study involving those experiencing chronic pain found the occurrence of maladaptive psychosocial responses, particularly in those who were physically inactive.

Certain environments and conditions can fuel maladaptive coping strategies, and children or adults whose only models for reacting have been maladaptive may be likely to continue using these behavior patterns. In children, maladaptive responses are usually called temper tantrums, but can also be termed “meltdowns,” and in adults, these responses are often referred to as disruptive or inappropriate behavior. In those less likely to respond aggressively, this maladaptation can also manifest as passive-aggressive behavior.

In other cases, maladaptive behaviors can be part of a more self-destructive pattern. One study found that maladaptive behaviors were significant predictors of self-harm, while another showed that difficulties with emotional regulation could lead to maladaptive impulsive behaviors, including risky sexual activity, binge eating, and non-suicidal self-injury.

Maladaptive responses may not only be observed within a mental health condition. Addiction, abuse, and trauma can cause maladaptive behaviors as well, as these types of behaviors often seek to regain equilibrium when balance has been damaged. If there was never a demonstration of equilibrium – or, in other terms, a “safe place” – in childhood, there may be no healthy behavioral baseline for the individual to return to.

In cases of maladaptive behavior, evaluation and treatment can be excellent starting points. While not all maladaptive behaviors may require psychological treatment, it can help determine why you do not cope in healthy, productive ways.

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Consequences Of Maladaptive Behaviors

Alienation

One of the most significant consequences of maladaptive behavior may be alienation. In childhood, children who engage in maladaptive behaviors may be less likely to have close friendships, and they may have a hard time earning the respect or consideration of their elders. Maladaptive behaviors are not always seen for what they are, which is behavioral responses to pain, discomfort, fear, or confusion. In this way, they are meant to act as “safety behaviors” meant to keep the individual safe from perceived threats. Instead, many maladaptive behaviors can frequently be perceived as laziness, disruptive tendencies, disrespect, or a lack of consideration.

School, Work, And Law

Because maladaptive behavior can be far-reaching, it may interfere with school, get you into trouble at work, and result in legal consequences. Maladaptive behavior frequently signals a need for professional help but may be overlooked until a serious incident occurs. In many cases, a professional can help someone engaging in this behavior develop strategies for healthier adaptation. 

Relationships

Maladaptive behavior may also be problematic in various types of relationships. If you are prone to outbursts of uncontrolled anger, periods of intense isolation, or extended moments of dependent behavior, you may be engaged in maladaptive behavior. In the short-term, these might require a simple conversation to find better ways to cope and communicate, but in a long-term arrangement, a lack of healthy coping skills can become reasons to terminate the relationship. This may be particularly true if the maladaptive behavior escalates into dangerous actions.

While maladaptive behavior can be harmful at any age, there may be treatment options available in the form of therapy. Therapists may help identify any persistent patterns of maladaptive behavior and can determine whether there is an underlying cause that can be addressed.

Maladaptive Behavior And Mental Disorders

Maladaptive behavior can be particularly common in mental, mood, and personality disorders, as these conditions typically have some element of disruption or fear attached to them. Anxiety and related disorders can involve maladaptation as they may lead to self-isolation that can compound over time. Depression can also lend itself to maladaptation, as apathy, lack of sleep, and listlessness can all be characterized as maladaptive behaviors that do not ultimately help the individual. Indeed, many mood disorders include maladaptive behavior as a symptom.

Maladaptive Behaviors And Development

Developmental delays and mood and mental disorders can be associated with maladaptive behaviors. Examples may include attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and others that often involve disruptive, repetitive, or self-stimulatory behaviors, many of which can be considered maladaptive. 

These behaviors are often utilized to elicit stimulation, cope with a lack of concentration, garner attention, and more. This maladaptive behavior often does not elicit the intended response, if a response is delivered at all.

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Turn Maladaptive Behaviors Into Healthy Responses

Getting Help For Maladaptive Behavior

If you believe you engage in maladaptive behavior, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Family and friends may not give you their true feelings regarding your situation, while an in-person or online therapist can assess the situation from an unbiased perspective. They can also create a treatment plan designed to minimize instances of maladaptive behavior and make room for healthier alternative behaviors. Online therapy may be an especially convenient option, particularly if you are experiencing alienation as a result of maladaptive behavior, because you may attend sessions from the comfort of your home.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) delivered online to treat maladaptive behavior can be a valuable tool. According to this study, online CBT can be highly effective for a variety of behaviors and mental health disorders.

Takeaway

Maladaptive behaviors are generally those that hinder you from adapting to or coping with situations or stressors in healthy ways. Examples can include self-isolation due to anxiety, sleeping too much due to depression, and lashing out at others when overwhelmed or angry. Anyone can engage in maladaptive behaviors, but some may be more likely than others to display them. These can include individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, or personality disorders, those who were neglected, abused, or grew up around maladaptive behaviors, adolescents trying to navigate myriad life changes, and individuals under extreme stress.

Gaining knowledge and awareness of these behaviors, recognizing when you’re engaging in them, employing self-modification, and attending therapy may turn maladaptive behaviors into healthier, more beneficial ones.

Target disruptive behavior in therapy

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