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What are maladaptive behaviors? Examples, types, and treatment

What are maladaptive behaviors? Examples, types, and treatment

Life can get stressful and overwhelming, and sometimes our methods of dealing with it are helpful in the short term but become more problematic over time. These unhelpful behaviors are referred to as “maladaptive behaviors” or, more specifically, actions or responses that are not suitable or effective in a given situation and often have negative consequences. 

These can come in many forms, whether they’re smaller like avoidance or procrastination, or more serious like substance abuse or aggression, but each are often used as a way to cope with the stressors of life. Though these behaviors might feel helpful or useful in the moment, they can have a negative long-term impact on one’s physical and mental health.

What Are Examples of Maladaptive Behavior?

Some maladaptive behavior examples include:

  • Substance abuse, or the regular and excessive consumption of drugs or alcohol, can lead to negative physical and psychological consequences, impairing one’s ability to function in daily life.
  • Avoidance behaviors include avoiding situations that may cause anxiety or fear, such as social events. These can lead to missed opportunities and social isolation.
  • Compulsive behaviors involve engaging in repetitive or excessive behaviors, such as handwashing or checking behaviors, which can interfere with daily functioning and cause distress.
  • Chronic procrastination, or putting off important tasks or responsibilities due to stress, can lead to missed deadlines and actually increase stress levels.
  • Aggression, or engaging in aggressive behaviors such as physical or verbal aggression, can cause harm to others and lead to negative consequences.
  • Self-harm and self-injurious behaviors such as cutting or burning oneself can cause physical harm and increase emotional distress.
  • Eating disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, involve maladaptive patterns of eating behaviors that can lead to negative physical and psychological consequences.

These are just a few examples of maladaptive behaviors. It is important to note that these behaviors can be symptoms of underlying mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, and seeking professional help for your mental health is important for effectively addressing them.

What Are Maladaptive Behaviors in Children?

Maladaptive behaviors in children are actions or behaviors that are inappropriate or counterproductive in relation to their developmental stage, environment, and the situation they find themselves in. These behaviors can be disruptive, harmful, or impair the child’s ability to function and engage in healthy relationships with others. 

Some examples of maladaptive behaviors in children include:

  • Aggression: This can include physical aggression, such as hitting, biting, or kicking, or verbal aggression, such as name-calling, teasing, or bullying.
  • Temper tantrums: These are common in young children, but if they persist beyond the age when they are expected to have gained control of their emotions, they can be considered maladaptive.
  • Oppositional behavior: This is characterized by defiance, noncompliance, and resistance to authority figures, such as parents, teachers, or other caregivers.
  • Withdrawal: Some children may retreat from social interactions and activities, which can interfere with their ability to learn and develop social skills.
  • Self-injurious behavior: This can include behaviors such as head-banging, scratching, or cutting oneself, which can be harmful and indicate deeper emotional problems.

Maladaptive behaviors in children can have many different causes, including environmental factors, family dynamics, and underlying mental health conditions. If you’re concerned about a child’s behavior, it’s a good idea to seek the help of a qualified mental health professional.

What Triggers Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behavior can be triggered by a variety of factors, including psychological, environmental, and biological factors. Maladaptive behaviors can be complex and may not always have a clear trigger. Understanding the underlying causes of maladaptive behavior is crucial in order to develop effective treatment plans when seeking professional help.

Below are examples of maladaptive behavior triggers:

  1. Psychological factors: Mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can trigger maladaptive behaviors. For example, someone with anxiety may engage in avoidant behaviors, while someone with depression may engage in self-harm.
  2. Environmental factors: Stressful or traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, or loss can trigger maladaptive behaviors as a coping mechanism. For example, someone who has experienced trauma may engage in substance abuse as a way to numb their emotional pain.
  3. Biological factors: Certain medical conditions, such as a traumatic brain injury or a neurological disorder, can cause changes in behavior. For example, someone with a brain injury may experience impulsivity or aggression.

What Are Symptoms of Maladaptive Coping?

Maladaptive coping is the use of coping strategies that are ineffective, harmful, or counterproductive in dealing with stress or difficult situations, often in long-term situations. Maladaptive behaviors can often become maladaptive coping strategies when those behaviors are continually used to help someone cope with their emotions.

It’s important to recognize when you or someone you know is using maladaptive coping strategies and to consider seeking help from a mental health professional. They will be able to help you identify which of your coping strategies might be maladaptive, then implement new healthy strategies to rely on in the future.

When using maladaptive coping skills, the condition that they are meant to be dealing with (like stress or grief) will likely overwhelm the capabilities of those strategies, similar to a bucket of water that’s overflowing. This means that not only will some negative symptoms of what you’re dealing with likely leak out from time to time, but other symptoms tied to feeling overwhelmed or weighed down by your emotions may also start to occur. These symptoms are often a sign to others that maladaptive coping is occurring. 

 Some common symptoms of maladaptive coping may include the following:

  • Avoidance: Avoiding or denying problems rather than facing them head-on. This can lead to procrastination, neglect of responsibilities, and a lack of progress.
  • Substance abuse: Using drugs or alcohol as a means of dulling stress or difficult emotions. This can lead to addiction, health problems, and legal issues.
  • Aggression: Reacting to stress with anger, aggression, or violence towards oneself or others. This can cause relationship problems, physical harm, and legal issues.
  • Self-harm: Engaging in self-destructive behaviors such as cutting, burning, or other forms of self-injury. This can lead to physical harm, infection, and long-term psychological damage.
  • Escapism: Engaging in activities that provide a temporary escape from reality, such as excessive gaming, binge-watching TV shows, or gambling. This can lead to social isolation, financial problems, and neglect of responsibilities.

These symptoms are both signs of stress due to maladaptive coping (i.e. aggression or avoidance) as well as specific maladaptive behaviors often seen in someone using maladaptive coping strategies (i.e. substance abuse and self-harm).

What Are Maladaptive Personality Traits?

Maladaptive personality traits refers to patterns of behavior and thinking that are considered dysfunctional or harmful to an individual’s well-being and relationships. These traits are often associated with various personality disorders recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). 

It’s important to note that not everyone with maladaptive traits necessarily has a personality disorder, though these traits can still significantly impact a person’s life and interactions with others. Many of these groups have traits in common though they are each still distinct from one another overall. 

Here are some examples of maladaptive personality traits associated with certain personality disorders:

  • Antisocial traits: This group includes a disregard for the rights and feelings of others, a lack of empathy or remorse, impulsivity, and a tendency towards deceitful or manipulative behavior. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by traits like these.
  • Borderline traits: Individuals with borderline traits often struggle with impulsivity, unstable emotions, an intense fear of abandonment, chronic feelings of emptiness, and self-destructive behaviors. Borderline personality disorder is one disorder associated with these traits.
  • Narcissistic traits: People with narcissistic traits have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, and a belief in their own superiority. A disorder that is commonly associated with these traits is narcissistic personality disorder.
  • Avoidant traits: Avoidant traits are marked by an extreme fear of rejection, feelings of inadequacy, social withdrawal, and avoidance of social interactions due to a fear of criticism or disapproval. An example of a disorder that exemplifies these traits is avoidant personality disorder.
  • Dependent traits: Individuals with dependent traits have an excessive need to be taken care of, a fear of abandonment, difficulty making decisions without reassurance, and a lack of self-confidence. Dependent personality disorder is characterized by these traits.
  • Obsessive-compulsive traits: These traits involve excessive preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and control, often at the expense of flexibility and spontaneity. A common disorder associated with this is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.

Though not all of these traits are necessarily negative or bad, when they are present with a high intensity, they can disrupt and affect someone’s life, as well as the lives of those around them.

It’s essential to understand that having one or more of these traits does not automatically indicate a diagnosis of a personality disorder. These traits exist on a spectrum, and the only way to know whether or not these traits can be accurately attributed to a mental disorder is by getting a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis from a qualified mental health professional.

What Are the Effects of Maladaptive Behavior? How Do They Affect Your Life?

Maladaptive behavior and its effects can be far-reaching and can impact a person’s mental and physical health, relationships, and general quality of life. Below are some common effects of maladaptive behavior:

  1. Mental health problems: Maladaptive behavior can lead to the development or exacerbation of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders.
  2. Relationship problems: Maladaptive behavior can strain personal and professional relationships by creating conflict, distrust, and communication breakdowns.
  3. Poor decision-making: Maladaptive behavior can interfere with a person’s ability to make rational decisions and can lead to impulsive or reckless actions.
  4. Reduced life satisfaction: Maladaptive behavior can negatively impact a person’s self-esteem, sense of purpose, and overall satisfaction with life.
  5. Physical health problems: Maladaptive behavior can increase the risk of physical health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as exacerbate existing health conditions.

Seeking professional help from a mental health expert and making changes to address maladaptive behavior can lead to better mental and physical health, improved relationships, and greater life satisfaction.

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How to Change Maladaptive Behaviors

Changing maladaptive behaviors can be a challenging process, but it is certainly possible with effort and persistence. Here are some steps you can take to work towards changing maladaptive behaviors:

  1. Recognize the behavior: The first step is to identify and acknowledge the maladaptive behavior. Reflect on how it affects your life and the reasons why you want to change it.
  2. Understand the function: Explore the underlying reasons or triggers for the behavior. Maladaptive behaviors often attempt to serve a purpose, such as relieving stress or avoiding discomfort. By understanding the function, you can find healthier alternatives to fulfill that purpose.
  3. Set goals: Clearly define what you want to achieve. Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. Break them down into smaller steps to make them more manageable and track your progress.
  4. Identify replacement behaviors: Find healthier alternatives that can serve the same purpose as the maladaptive behavior. For example, if you tend to overeat when stressed, you could try practicing deep breathing exercises, going for a walk, or engaging in a hobby to manage stress instead.
  5. Develop a plan: Create a detailed plan that outlines how you will implement the replacement behaviors. Consider potential obstacles and develop strategies to overcome them. You may also want to seek support from friends, family, or professionals, such as therapists or counselors.
  6. Practice self-awareness: Pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, and triggers that lead to the maladaptive behavior. Mindfulness techniques can help you become more aware of your internal experiences and allow you to respond more intentionally.
  7. Monitor and track progress: Regularly assess your progress towards your goals. Keep a journal or use tracking tools to record your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. This can help you identify patterns, make adjustments, and celebrate your successes along the way.
  8. Utilize positive reinforcement: Reward yourself for making progress and engaging in the replacement behaviors. Positive reinforcement can help motivate and reinforce the desired changes.
  9. Learn new coping skills: Develop healthy coping skills to manage stress, anxiety, or any underlying issues that contribute to maladaptive behavior. This could involve seeking therapy, attending support groups, or learning relaxation techniques.
  10. Practice patience and self-compassion: Changing maladaptive behaviors takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and recognize that setbacks are normal. Treat yourself with kindness and self-compassion throughout the process.

Mental health professionals can help you put a plan like this into practice in a way that best suits you, as well as helping unearth any maladaptive behaviors you may have in place through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Remember, changing maladaptive behaviors is a journey that requires commitment and persistence. It can be helpful to seek professional help from therapists, counselors, or support groups who can provide guidance and support tailored to your specific needs.

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Theresa Lupcho, LPCLicensed Professional Counselor
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Theresa Lupcho is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a passion for providing the utmost quality of services to individuals and couples struggling with relationship issues, depression, anxiety, abuse, ADHD, stress, family conflict, life transitions, grief, and more.

Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
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Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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