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Updated on July 19, 2023
6 min read

What Are the Signs of Maladaptive Behavior and How Is It Treated?

Kelly Brown
Dr P. E. Pancoast, MD
Written by 
7 Sources Cited
Kelly Brown
Written by 
7 Sources Cited

What is Maladaptive Behavior?

Maladaptive behavior refers to a person’s reaction to cope with difficult situations. It is ultimately unhealthy for a person as it inhibits their ability to adjust.

Although the behaviors seem to reduce anxiety, they are unproductive and dysfunctional. Ultimately, they’re more harmful than helpful and a poor response to a situation.

The American Psychological Association defines abnormal behavior as “atypical or statistically uncommon within a particular culture, or that is maladaptive or detrimental to an individual or those around that individual.”

Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Behavior

Adaptive and maladaptive behavior both describe responses to the same situation. However, maladaptive behaviors actively hinder growth and positive change.

Adaptive behaviors are positive and functional. People with adaptive behavior successfully navigate their situations and cope with challenges, achieving the best outcomes.

Maladaptive behavior is negative and dysfunctional. Those with maladaptive behaviors could worsen their situation and increase the unpleasant sensations that triggered the behavior in the first place.

Causes of Maladaptive Behavior

There are several potential causes of maladaptive behaviors. They include:

  • Stress
  • Trauma
  • Mental health disorders
  • Developmental disorders
  • Fear
  • Anxiety

The causes of maladaptive behavior can be internal or external. A person’s environment can trigger maladaptive behaviors to develop, but negative feelings are the general cause of maladaptive behavior.

For example, if a person grows up in a violent environment or doesn’t receive love and parental support, they might cope by developing maladaptive behaviors. The same is true if they’re told their emotions are unreasonable, irrational, or invalid.


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Is Maladaptive Behavior a Disorder?

Maladaptive behaviors aren’t in themselves a disorder. However, they’re usually symptoms of a disorder. Many people develop maladaptive behaviors when they experience:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct disorder
  • Personality disorders

Maladaptive behaviors tend to worsen the root problem. For example, developing a maladaptive behavior in response to stress can lead to more stress. These behaviors interfere with someone’s daily life and overall quality of life.

Types of Maladaptive Behavior

There are different types of maladaptive behaviors in both children and adults.

Maladaptive Behaviors in Adults

There are several different types of maladaptive behavior in adults. For example:

  • Substance Abuse: People often use this method to ease pain and anxiety and temporarily relieve problems and bad experiences.
  • Attention-Seeking: A person seeks attention or wants to be the center of attention by doing excessive actions that can draw attention to them. This includes manipulating others or admitting to crimes they didn’t commit.
  • Withdrawal/Maladaptive Daydreaming: These include highly structured daydreams or fantasies unrelated to someone’s immediate surroundings. Maladaptive daydreams are a coping mechanism or an addictive escape from unpleasant sensations.
  • Sex Addiction: Sexual addicts have enormous desires to engage in sexual intercourse and activities that can result in severe stress on loved ones, family, and friends. These people rely on sex to escape, relieve pain, and manage stress.
  • Anger Conversion: While the emotion of anger is normal, anger that converts to violence is inappropriate.
  • Healthy Addiction: Although most addictions are considered unhealthy, it’s possible to develop an addiction to something healthy, such as exercise or work. When something becomes compulsive, even if it’s generally healthy, it can be mentally, emotionally, and in some cases, physically damaging.

Maladaptive Behaviors in Children

There are many different types of maladaptive behaviors practiced by children. For example:

  • Antisocial behavior
  • Temper tantrums
  • Aggressive behaviors
  • Anger outbursts
  • Ridiculing
  • Excessive talking​
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Damaging/dangerous behavior
  • Social situation avoidance behaviors
  • School refusal​ 
  • Addiction
  • Substance abuse
  • Alcohol use
  • Video game addiction​
  • Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI)
  • Maladaptive daydreaming
  • Eating disorders

Causes of maladaptive behavior in children include:

  • Lack of emotional regulation
  • Trauma
  • Internalizing or externalizing problems
  • Personality disorders
  • Developmental disorders
  • Social anxiety
  • Autism spectrum disorder1

Potential Consequences in Children

The risks of maladaptive behavior vary based on the specific behavior. In general, these behaviors negatively impact a child’s quality of life. Some of the potential consequences include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fear
  • Poor social skills
  • Difficulty being productive
  • Struggles in relationships
  • Difficulty being assertive
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Other mental health disorders, including OCD, ADHD, PTSD, dissociative disorder, borderline personality disorder

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Maladaptive Behavior: Identifying and Addressing It Effectively

If you or someone you care about do any of the following, it’s time to seek professional support for the maladaptive coping strategies:

  • Thinking about or performing self-harm actions
  • Feeling that life is spiraling out of control
  • Stress and/or anxiety increasing
  • Depression
  • Behavior interfering with the quality of life
  • Increasing struggles in relationships
  • Avoidance behavior that interferes with work, school, or relationships

See a specialist if maladaptive behaviors develop in response to trauma.

Treatment for maladaptive behavior includes the following:


Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is one of the most common approaches to treating maladaptive behavior. It helps people change the underlying thoughts that contribute to the behavior. 

People using cognitive behavioral therapy identify their cognitive distortions and work on replacing their maladaptive behaviors with adaptive ones.


In some cases, medication is needed to overcome maladaptive coping mechanisms. 

Medication can be used in conjunction with psychotherapy. The most common medications used to treat people with maladaptive behavior include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Antidepressants
  • Beta-blockers

Medication helps reduce anxiety and the desire to perform maladaptive behavior.


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Common Questions about Maladaptive Behavior

What are the six maladaptive traits?

  1. Avoiding stressful or unpleasant things/situations
  2. Engaging in excessive daydreaming that replaces real-life social interaction
  3. Hiding one’s true feelings rather than being assertive or showing true emotion
  4. Hurting oneself as a coping mechanism
  5. Angry outbursts
  6. Using drugs or alcohol

What is maladaptive behavior, according to Sigmund Freud?

Freud believed that an imbalance leads to maladaptive behavior. For example, someone with an overly dominant id might be impulsive, uncontrollable, or even become a criminal. The person is acting upon their most basic urges without concern for whether their behavior is appropriate, acceptable, or legal.

Is anxiety an example of maladaptive behavior?

A maladaptive coping mechanism is a response to anxiety. Although someone might develop maladaptive behavior to deal with anxiety, these coping skills often increase anxiety. 

For example, self-harm, binge eating, or substance abuse might alleviate stress in the immediate moment, but over time it causes greater physical and/or psychological distress.

How do you know if you’re maladaptive?

You could be maladaptive if you:

  • Avoid stressful or unpleasant situations
  • Engage in elaborate daydreaming
  • Hide your true feelings
  • Hurt yourself to cope with distress
  • Have angry outbursts
  • Use substances to manage difficult emotions

What is an example of a maladaptive stress response?

Any of the behaviors that are considered maladaptive can be an example of a maladaptive stress response. 

For example, if you drink alcohol or use drugs in response to stress, it’s a maladaptive stress response. Adaptive stress responses are those that do not make stressful situations more harmful.

What causes maladaptive daydreaming?

Some of the potential causes of maladaptive daydreaming include:

  • Excessively noisy environment
  • Difficult life events
  • Conversations
  • Smells
  • Movies
  • Discussion of sensitive topics


Maladaptive behavior is a coping skill. However, it’s one that often makes a situation worse. 

The best way to deal with maladaptive behavior is to identify the trigger and then learn better ways to respond. Psychotherapy, and sometimes medications, can help people alter their maladaptive behavior.

Even if someone’s maladaptive behavior seems harmless, it can lead to problems over time. The sooner people learn adaptive behavior that doesn’t serve as an escape, the better. Doing so helps them cope and not turn to unhealthy tools in difficult situations later in life.

Updated on July 19, 2023
7 sources cited
Updated on July 19, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. Hall, H.R., and Graff, J.C. “Maladaptive Behaviors of Children with Autism: Parent Support, Stress, and Coping.” Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, 2012.

  2. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Treatment of PTSD.”  American Psychological Association (APA), 2017.  

  3. Pedrini et al. “Adolescents’ Mental Health and Maladaptive Behaviors before the Covid-19 Pandemic and 1-Year After: Analysis of Trajectories over Time and Associated Factors.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 2022.  

  4. Violent Behavior in Children and Adolescents.” American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), 2017.  

  5. Conduct Disorder Resource Center.” American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), 2019. 

  6. Swerdlow et al. “Maladaptive Behavior and Affect Regulation: A Functionalist Perspective.” Emotion, 2020.

  7. Huff, Charlotte. “Working with Adults with Developmental Disabilities.”, 2021. 

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