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Maladaptive Behavior: What Is It, Signs & Treatments Of 2023

Lisandra Fields

Updated on - Written by
Medically reviewed by Kathy Shattler, MS, RDN

What Is Maladaptive Behavior

We all exhibit signs of maladaptive behavior in one way or another but only to a certain extent. For example, you occasionally witness your coworker’s meltdowns or figure out ways to deal with your child’s tantrums

While it seems like an alien or complex term, maladaptive behavior is quite prevalent in today’s world. There are so many amazing benefits of CBD. One of them is to help control signs of maladaptive behavior. In this post, we’ll explore the meaning of the term, the different signs to look out for, and the different forms of treatment. 

What is Maladaptive Behavior? 

To know what maladaptive behavior means, we need to delve deeper into the term “maladaptive.” The term ‘adaptive’ is made complete by the prefix ‘mal-.’ 

Adaptive means to alter, modify, or adjust. It’s often seen in forums relating to evolution, education, and growth. All of these bring attention to the action of continually expecting something new. 

When translated, the prefix ‘mal-’ means “ill” or “bad.” All the psychological constructs in regards to maladaptive behavior don’t necessarily quantify ill or bad behavior. Therefore, the phrase ‘maladaptive behavior’ describes actions that modify, adapt, or even adjust poorly. 

Someone with maladaptive behavior exhibits inappropriate reactions to external/internal stimuli. 

To put this into perspective, an average child might ask some relevant questions when there’s a change in their schedule: “Why aren’t you taking me out today? Why isn’t Dad driving me to school today? Isn’t it a bit early for lunch?” and so on. 

A child with maladaptive behavior throws themselves down and screams while hammering their fists on the floor. These behaviors stop the individual from adapting to difficult or new circumstances. They often lead to health, social, and emotional problems. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Maladaptive Behavior? 

Maladaptive behavior is recognized by these common behaviors:

  • Avoidance
  • Passive-aggressiveness
  • Withdrawal
  • Anger
  • Self-harm
  • Maladaptive daydreaming
  • Substance use


It’s normal to disengage from an unpleasant situation or anything that you have no control over. However, when you continuously avoid new circumstances for fear of what they might bring, that’s a clear indication of maladaptive behavior. 

Some avoidance tendencies include: 

  • Opting out of eye contact in the middle of a conversation
  • Keeping your questions to yourself (especially when you need clarification)
  • Speaking in low tones or not speaking at all

Take, for instance, that you suffer from social anxiety, but you’re required to mingle and mix with people on a day-to-day basis. You won’t address the problem by sneaking out of work or faking illness. 

Adaptive behaviors in such a situation would be to seek professional treatment for your social anxiety, schedule therapy sessions, or find a less intimidating job. You can also read through these informative articles on anxiety and trauma treatment


Passive aggressiveness is the act of indirectly expressing negative feelings rather than head-on. When you’re passive-aggressive, you can say one thing but mean another in reality. You weave your true feelings into your actions. 

For instance, your better half cancels your dinner reservation since they felt like spending the evening at home. Because this is something you’ve been looking forward to for the longest time, you’re bound to get disappointed. However, rather than express your disappointment, you choose to smile and act like everything is okay. 

You proceed to slam doors and complain about totally unrelated issues. You’re visibly angry, but you’d rather bottle up your inner feelings rather than talk about them openly. 


It’s perfectly normal to want to keep to yourself and avoid engaging in social activities. There’s also nothing wrong with declining an invitation out of fears of meeting with an ex. 

When you pick avoidance as your key strategy, you withdraw effectively from social interaction. Take, for instance, the campus student who spends most of their time on video games just to avoid meeting new people or joining new clubs. 

The video games act as a temporary distraction and offer them that much-needed relief from anxiety. After all is said and done, withdrawal doesn’t do much to help[1] with coping skills. It leads to a spike in anxiety, and isolation becomes the end result. 


Everyone experiences anger at some point in their lives. Anger only becomes useful when you channel it into constructive actions. 

It’s not at all helpful when you entertain heated outbursts or stay angry all the time. Uncontrolled anger often leads to unresolved arguments and further problems. It hampers your communication skills and limits social interaction.  

Childrens’ temper tantrums would fall into this particular category. The majority of children come to realize later that there are better, more effective ways to achieve their desired results. 


When people with maladaptive behavior don’t know how to handle stressful events, they often hurt themselves. Some actions of self-harm include:

  • Picking wounds or scabs
  • Burning, scratching, or cutting the skin
  • Banging one’s head or self-hitting
  • Declining to take prescribed medications

While self-harm offers temporary relief, it may exacerbate issues and, in some cases, even lead to death. 

Maladaptive Daydreaming

If you consider daydreaming a healthy pastime, then you’re right to do so. Daydreaming helps you come up with viable solutions to problems and also frees the mind. Studies show[2] that the average human being displays more than a hundred daydreaming episodes every day. 

Maladaptive daydreaming is engaging your mind in extensive mental fantasy that gives you peace or satisfaction in return. Daydreams involve complex characters and plots and can last for hours at any given time. 

People who display signs of maladaptive daydreaming often want to stay rooted in their thoughts rather than face reality. 

Substance Use

Substance use presents itself in the form of prescribed/non-prescribed drugs, alcohol, and so on. It’s a common form of avoidance behavior. It becomes a huge problem when it’s used to obliterate feelings or ease anxiety

Substance use offers a temporary escape from reality. It could lead to physical/emotional addiction and create a whole new wave of problems. The more the problems, the worse the substance use becomes. 

What are the Treatment Methods for Maladaptive Behavior? 

If you’re a victim of maladaptive behavior, the first step you can take towards recovery is to recognize your problem. From there, you can make a conscious effort to alter your reality and make your life worth living. 

The following are some treatment alternatives for maladaptive behavior:

  • Anger management
  • Addiction counseling
  • Exposure therapy
  • Relaxation and stress-inducing procedures

Anger management

As earlier stated, anger is a significant sign of maladaptive behavior. One of the best ways to tame your temper is to apply for anger management sessions. Here, you’ll learn different techniques to learn how to express your feelings clearly and in healthier ways. 

When you learn how to keep your anger in check, you will strengthen your relationships, find better ways to handle conflict in your life, and meet your needs faster. 

Addiction Counselling

Substance Use Disorder is a chronic illness that involves never-ending cycles of remission and relapse. You can break the cycle by seeking professional assistance. 

Once you enroll yourself in an addiction treatment program, you’ll begin learning the strategies and skills needed to repair the damage caused by drugs. 

Even when you complete your addiction counseling lessons, you need to have a support system that helps you keep track of your progress and strive to avoid future relapses. 

In most cases, individuals in lengthy remission periods may not need active treatment. However, they may still benefit from participating in recovery groups or communities like Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Exposure Therapy

If you experience anxiety disorders, exposure-based therapy is just what you need. It’s defined as a treatment that encourages active participation in feared stimuli. These could be internal (physical sensations, feared thoughts, etc.) or external (e.g., feared situations, activities, or objects).

The main objective behind exposure therapy is to limit or eliminate the individual’s frightful reaction to the stimulus. 

Professionals in this field use a rather graded approach whereby the first targets are the mildly feared stimuli, then the most feared stimuli. It’s a rather complex treatment process, but the end results are pretty encouraging. 

Relaxation and Stress Inducing Procedures

This treatment alternative needs personal commitment and dedication. In the 1970s, cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson formed the ‘relaxation response’ technique. 

It’s quite the opposite of the well-known stress response. It’s described as being in a state of unexplainable rest that you can elicit in so many ways. 

The six relaxation techniques[3] associated with the relaxation response include: 

  • Guided imagery. Conjure up peaceful experiences, places, or scenes in your mind to help you focus and relax. 
  • Breath focus. Take deep, slow, and long breaths while disengaging your mind from negative sensations and thought patterns.
  • Body scan. This particular technique combines progressive muscle relaxation with breath focus. It helps to heighten your awareness of your mind-body connection. 
  • Mindfulness meditation. It involves a deep focus on your breathing, as well as focusing your mind’s attention on your status quo. It’s especially beneficial for people with pain, depression, and anxiety. 

+ 3 sources

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  1. Farnish, Krystan Ashley (2021). “Not now, I had a long day” : social withdrawal as a coping strategy for managing stress. Utexas.edu. [online] Available at: https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/86711
  2. ‌Somer, E., Lehrfeld, J., Bigelsen, J. and Jopp, D.S. (2016). Development and validation of the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale (MDS). Consciousness and Cognition, [online] 39, pp.77–91. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053810015300611?via%3Dihub
  3. Harvard Health. (2016). Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress – Harvard Health. [online] Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/six-relaxation-techniques-to-reduce-stress
Lisandra Fields

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

Lisandra Fields is a freelance medical writer from Pennsylvania who creates articles, blog posts, fact sheets, and website content for health-related organizations across North America. She has experience working with a wide range of clients, from health charities to businesses to media outlets. She has experience writing about cancer, diabetes, ALS, cannabis, personality psychology, and COVID-19, among many other topics. Lisandra enjoys reading scientific journal articles and finding creative ways to distill the ideas for a general audience.

Medically reviewed by:

Kathy Shattler

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