Identifying and Treating Maladaptive Behavior




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Maladaptive behaviors are those that stop you from adapting to new or difficult circumstances.

They can start after a major life change, illness, or traumatic event. It could also be a habit you picked up at an early age.


You can identify maladaptive behaviors and replace them with more productive ones.

Otherwise, they can lead to emotional, social, and health problems.

If things are spiraling out of control, there is treatment.

A qualified therapist can help you find better ways to react to life’s challenges.


Let’s explore some types of maladaptive behavior and signs you should seek treatment.


Maybe you’ve gone out of your way to avoid something.

Perhaps you’ve stormed out of a room or screamed into the void. We’ve all been there.

When that’s your only way of dealing with stressors, it can be a problem.

Maladaptive behavior affects people of all ages and backgrounds.

The key is to recognize it and work to change it.


Adaptive and maladaptive behavior

Life rarely goes as expected.

When faced with an obstacle, we can adapt or not.

At the moment, it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.

It could be a temporary reaction until we have a chance to think about it.


Adaptive behavior is making the choice to solve a problem or minimize an unwanted outcome.

You might do something you don’t necessarily want to do or find a way to work around it.

You’re adjusting to circumstances.


For example, an avid reader who is losing their eyesight might adapt by learning Braille or buying audiobooks.

They find a way to continue enjoying books.


Maladaptive behavior would be not acknowledging vision loss or the need for change.

It feels out of control and painful to think about, so no action is taken.

They end up missing out on something they enjoy.



Maladaptive behaviors like these can become a self-destructive pattern:




Avoiding a threat or disengaging from unpleasantness is often the best move, especially for temporary things over which you have no control.


When you continually avoid something you shouldn’t, it’s maladaptive behavior.


Suppose you have social anxiety, but your job requires you to mix and mingle on a regular basis.

If you make it a habit to feign illness or sneak out the back door after 5 minutes, you’re not addressing the problem.


Adaptive behaviors would be to seek help for social anxiety, try exposure therapy, or find a more suitable job.


Other avoidance behaviors include:

  • not making eye contact during conversation
  • speaking too softly or not at all
  • not asking questions when you need more information




There’s nothing wrong with you if you prefer alone time to social activities.

There’s also nothing wrong with bowing out of a party to avoid bumping into your ex.


When avoidance is your go-to strategy, you’re effectively withdrawing from social interaction. Consider the college student who uses video games to avoid joining clubs or meeting new people.


The games are a distraction and provide temporary relief from anxiety.


In the long run, avoidance does nothing to improve coping skills. Invitations stop coming, anxiety builds, and the result is isolation.




Passive-aggressiveness is when you express negative feelings indirectly rather than head-on. You say one thing but really mean another. Your true feelings are woven into your actions.


For example, your partner feels like staying home and cancels your dinner reservation.

You’ve been looking forward to it for weeks, so this upsets you.

Instead of expressing disappointment, you smile and say it’s fine.


Later, you’re slamming doors and complaining about unrelated things.

You’re angry, but no closer to making your feelings understood.



Some people deal with stressful events by hurting themselves, such as:

  • cutting, scratching or burning skin
  • picking at scabs or wounds
  • pulling out hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows
  • self-hitting or banging your head
  • refusal to take needed medications

This may provide temporary relief, but only exacerbates problems and can potentially harm your health.




Anger is a normal emotion.

Anger that spurs you to constructive action is useful.

It’s not useful if you’re often angry or have angry outbursts.

Uncontrolled anger doesn’t solve problems.

It alienates others and hampers your ability to communicate effectively.


A child’s temper tantrum would fall into this category.

Most children eventually see that there are better ways to get to the desired result.


Substance use


Whether it’s alcohol, prescribed drugs, or non-prescribed drugs, substance use can be a type of avoidance behavior.

It’s a problem when you use it to ease anxiety or to obliterate your feelings.


Any escape from reality is temporary at best.

This behavior can lead to emotional and physical addiction, creating a whole new set of problems.


Maladaptive daydreaming


Daydreaming is generally a healthy pastime.

It frees the mind and helps you work out problems.

It’s estimated that the average person has hundreds of daydreaming episodes per day.


Maladaptive daydreaming is when you engage in extensive fantasy in place of human interaction or participation in real life.


These daydreams can last hours at a time and involve intricate plots and characters that keep you going back.

They can then keep you from facing reality.