What Is Maladaptive Behavior? Definition And Symptoms

Updated November 14, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Maladaptive behaviors are undoubtedly a part of everyone’s life, in some capacity. For example, children may throw tantrums, adults may yell or throw things when angry, your boss may lash out at you when they’re having a rough day, and so on. Though they’re not particularly healthy or helpful, maladaptive behaviors are a common feature in the daily goings-on of human beings.

Concerned That You May Have Some Maladaptive Behaviors?

Maladaptive Behavior

Definition

To define maladaptive behavior, a glance at the words themselves is needed. 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 meeting new challenges. The prefix “mal,” directly translated, means “bad” or “ill.” As such, the term “maladaptive behavior” is used to describe behavior that adapts, modifies, or adjusts poorly.

Examples

Maladaptive behaviors are 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 ground, and so on. Although both of these responses are typically provoked by fear or discomfort, one successfully navigates the new terrain, while the other increases the sensations prompting the negative 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 but 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, who seem particularly prone to utilizing maladaptive responses. These include people with mood and personality disorders, anxiety disorders, developmental delays, a history of anger, and poor family structure. These types of environments and conditions can fuel 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 the balance has been damaged. If there never was a demonstration of equilibrium – or, in other terms, a “safe place” – in childhood, there is little or no healthy behavioral baseline for the individual to move back to. In all cases of maladaptive behavior, then, evaluation and potential treatment are excellent starting points. While maladaptive behaviors might not all require psychological treatment, it is a legitimate line of questioning to determine why your body or brain does not cope in healthy, productive ways.

Consequences Of Maladaptive Behaviors

Alienation

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 to attain the respect or consideration of their elders. Maladaptive behaviors are often not seen as behavioral responses to pain, discomfort, fear, or confusion but are frequently mistakenly seen as expressions of laziness, disruptive tendencies, disrespect, or a lack of consideration.

School, Work, And Law

Maladaptive behavior can do more than alienate you from peers and authority figures. 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 potentially with the law if certain behaviors are not corrected or treated early enough. Maladaptive behavior almost always signals a need for help – legitimate, professional help – but may be overlooked until something serious occurs.

Relationships

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 dependent 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 potentially become reasons to terminate the relationship. This is particularly true if the maladaptive behaviors escalate into dangerous actions.

While maladaptive behaviors might be detrimental in most 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 a disorder.

Maladaptive Behavior And Mental Disorders

Mood And Personality

Maladaptive behavior is particularly common in mental, mood, and personality disorders, as all of these conditions have some element of disruption or fear attached to them. Healthy minds don’t usually lead to maladaptation, but unhealthy minds may frequently move to these behaviors automatically. Anxiety and its related disorders are well-known for maladaptation, as these disorders can result in the self-isolation of individuals living with them, and may compound day by day if not addressed properly. 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, most mood disorders consider maladaptive behaviors a symptom of the condition.

Anxiety

Anxiety often involves 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.

Development

Developmental delays and mood and mental disorders are known for maladaptive behaviors, as is the case with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and others. These conditions are all known for disruptive, repetitive, or self-stimulatory behaviors, many of which may fall under the umbrella of being 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.

Concerned That You May Have Some Maladaptive Behaviors?

Getting Help For Maladaptive Behaviors

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 explored 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.

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 maladaptive behaviors. If you’re living with someone who has maladaptive behaviors, then one of our online therapists can provide emotional support and understanding as you, along with your therapist, explore ways to healthily navigate the relationship and 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, even in your car. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

Therapist 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.”

Takeaway

Maladaptive behaviors are those that hinder you from adapting to or coping with situations or stressors in healthy ways that help you. Some examples include self-isolation due to anxiety, sleeping too much due to depression, lashing out at others when overwhelmed or angry, and so on. Anyone can engage in maladaptive behaviors, regardless of socioeconomic status, age, gender, or ethnicity. However, some are more likely than others to display these unhelpful behaviors. These can include individuals with mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, or personality disorders; those who were neglected, abused, or grew up around maladaptive behaviors as children; adolescents trying to navigate myriad life changes; individuals under extreme stress, and so on.

Maladaptive behaviors are typically not permanent if the individual doesn’t wish them to be, except in certain circumstances. Gaining knowledge and awareness of these behaviors, working toward recognizing when you’re engaging in them, self-modification, and therapy can all help turn maladaptive behaviors into healthier, more beneficial ones.

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