Maladaptive behaviors interfere with a person’s daily activities, ability to adjust, or ability to participate in certain settings. Maladaptive behavior can appear in various ways, including avoidance, anger, and substance use.

The cause of maladaptive behavior also varies, including trauma, autism spectrum disorder, and other mental health conditions.

This article takes a closer look at maladaptive behavior by explaining the signs and types of behaviors. It also discusses the potential causes and treatment of this behavior type.

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Maladaptive behaviors are behaviors that have the potential to harm the person exhibiting the behaviors or those around them. They also tend to interfere with an individual’s everyday life.

Maladaptive behavior can be minor behaviors that have little effect on daily life, such as nail biting or difficulty with separation. They can also be more severe behaviors that have a major effect on a person’s day-to-day life, such as self-harm or harmful or dangerous sexual behaviors.

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This feature mentions experiences of trauma and sexual abuse. Please read at your own discretion.

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Maladaptive behaviors can present in various ways. They are any behaviors that keep someone from adapting to or participating in circumstances or situations.

Examples of maladaptive behaviors include:

  • avoiding situations that may be stressful or difficult
  • hiding feelings rather than asserting individual opinions or emotions
  • experiencing outbursts of anger
  • withdrawing from social situations that may cause anxiety or discomfort
  • engaging in self-harm or substance misuse to cope with feelings of distress, anxiety, or other emotions

Maladaptive behaviors can be externalizing behaviors or internalizing behaviors.

Types of maladaptive behaviors include:

  • Avoidance: Experts often consider avoidance a maladaptive behavior as a response to fear or anxiety.
  • Passive-aggressiveness: Passive-aggressiveness is a form of indirect hostility toward another person. This may occur verbally, nonverbally, or timidly.
  • Anger: Anger is a natural emotion. However, it can also lead to consequences that are psychological, interpersonal, or physiological. Anger can present in maladaptive behaviors such as tantrums or aggression.
  • Sexual maladaptive behavior: Sexually maladaptive behaviors are sexual behaviors that are age-inappropriate or potentially harmful. Examples include having sex without using a condom or other barrier methods, sexual aggression, or an individual doing things they do not want to do.
  • Substance use: Research has shown that substance use may be a type of avoidant behavior. It also has links to early maladaptive schemas, or a pattern of compromised memories, emotions, and bodily sensations. A person may direct them to themselves or their relationship with others. These early maladaptive schemas can also have associations with symptoms of depression, which also relate to substance use.
  • Maladaptive daydreaming: Daydreaming is not uncommon. However, maladaptive daydreaming involves fantasy activity that is extensive and may even replace human interaction. It can also interfere with work, school, and a person’s social life.
  • Self-harm: Research has shown that nonsuicidal self-injury has a higher rate of occurrence in adolescents who showed signs of impulsivity, childhood trauma or maltreatment, or symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also shows that the belief that a person is isolated, unloveable, or incapable can lead to higher levels of suicidal ideation.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects if it’s safe to do so.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

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There are various reasons people may experience maladaptive behaviors, including trauma, anxiety or panic disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and personality disorders.


There is a strong link between trauma, especially childhood trauma, and maladaptive behaviors. People who have experienced childhood trauma are more likely to experience maladaptive behaviors, such as self-harm and substance use, than those who have not experienced trauma.

Anxiety and panic disorders

People with anxiety or panic disorders may be more likely to participate in avoidant behaviors. This could be because they wish to avoid situations, places, people, or objects that may trigger their anxiety or panic.

Learn more about anxiety and panic disorders.

Autism spectrum disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder may be likely to display externalized maladaptive behaviors, such as tantrums, self-harm, and aggression. Research has shown that this may have a connection to the verbal abilities of the child.

Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.

Personality disorders

Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is a condition that experts characterize by extensive feelings of fear of rejection and personal inadequacy. This leads people with AVPD to withdraw and isolate themselves from social interaction. Older research from 2012 also showed a connection between maladaptive aggression and avoidance with borderline personality disorder.

Learn more about avoidant personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

A person may wish to seek help from a mental health professional for maladaptive behaviors if they co-occur with symptoms of other conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or AVPD. They may also want to speak with a mental health professional if maladaptive behaviors affect their day-to-day life.

Treatment for maladaptive behavior may depend on whether there is an underlying mental health or developmental condition causing the behavior. It may include psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.

Maladaptive behaviors affect a person’s ability to perform daily activities, adjust to situations, and participate in certain activities.

These behaviors include avoidance, anger, substance use, and self-harm. They may be the result of trauma, underlying mental health conditions, or conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

If a person experiences maladaptive behaviors that affect their day-to-day life and relationships, they may wish to speak with a mental health professional.