What is maladaptive behavior?

Maladaptive behavior is something that affects everyone, regardless of their age. A child throwing a tantrum because they can’t have what they want or an adult screaming into the void because they feel frustrated are both examples of maladaptive behavior. Although it may sound like a complicated psychological term, maladaptive behavior is a surprisingly common characteristic that frequently appears in our everyday lives.

While maladaptive behavior often makes you feel better in the short term, it can become a big problem when it becomes your only way of dealing with stressors.

What exactly is maladaptive behavior?

The phrase “maladaptive behavior” is used to describe behaviors that prevent you from adapting to difficult or new circumstances. You may pick up maladaptive behaviors as a child and carry them with you into adulthood or you may experience them following a traumatic event, illness, or major life change. 

It’s important to identify maladaptive behaviors, address them, and replace them with more productive ones that allow you to adapt to the challenges life gives you. Failure to do so can result in serious social, emotional, and health problems. If you find your maladaptive behaviors spiraling out of control, a therapist can help you take charge and make the changes necessary for a better life.

Examples of maladaptive behavior

A child successfully adapting to change may ask their parents questions about recent changes to their usual schedule. “Why are we not going to nana’s house today? What happened? What are we doing instead?” and so on. In contrast, a child going through maladaptive behaviors will throw themselves on the floor and scream until they’ve lost the energy to continue. 

Maladaptive behavior looks similar in adults. A boss successfully dealing with difficult circumstances may ask questions about a recently-made error. “Why did you do what you did? What did you think the outcome would be? Do you know what to do in the future?” and so on. A boss reacting with maladaptive behavior wouldn’t ask questions and would instead resort to shouting or storming out of the room as it provides an immediate release.

Maladaptive behavior isn’t always that obvious. A subtle example could be someone who loves reading but is going to permanently lose their eyesight. If they behave adaptively, they would learn Braille or consider buying audiobooks so they could continue to enjoy their hobby. If they behave maladaptively, they would fail to acknowledge their vision loss as it’s too painful and feel down for missing out on something they once used to love.

Types of maladaptive behavior

It can be difficult to notice maladaptive behaviors in yourself. They can start off subtle and quickly form a self-destructive pattern that is difficult to escape from. Here are some of the most common types of maladaptive behaviors:


Avoiding an unpleasant situation is often your best choice if it’s temporary and is something you can’t control. But when you find yourself continuously avoiding something that’s a major part of your life, it’s maladaptive behavior.

If you have social anxiety and avoid addressing the problem, it’s not going to go away. Instead, you should consider seeking help for your condition so you can deal with social situations better in the future. 


Anger is a healthy emotion that can provoke you to take necessary action. But being angry often or experiencing regular outbursts of anger isn’t healthy. It’s an example of maladaptive behavior and could be a symptom of a mental health issue. Instead of releasing your anger through negative channels, you should consider trying different, more beneficial ways to let go of your emotions.


Being passive-aggressive can be seen as a better alternative to straight anger, but they’re both types of maladaptive behavior. Say you’ve been looking forward to going on a trip with your partner for months, but they’ve canceled it for other commitments. You say you’re fine with it, but then start complaining and getting upset about non-related things.

Pretending you’re fine with someone’s decision or actions when you’re really annoyed or upset about them is never going to resolve the problem. Finding effective ways to communicate your feelings to others will make you feel better than pretending that nothing is wrong.


It’s fine to want to spend time alone away from friends. It’s also perfectly acceptable to avoid going to a party because you know your ex who you just broke up with will be there

But withdrawal becoming your natural reaction to social invitations is a sign of maladaptive behavior. You may enjoy playing video games. But if you’re constantly using gaming as an excuse to avoid being with other people, you could have social anxiety. And dealing with it like this won’t make it go away.

When to see a therapist

If you’ve tried to fix your maladaptive behaviors and you’re getting nowhere, it may be time to seek help from a professional. Here are some of the signs that you need to reach out to someone:

  • You’re struggling with the after-effects of trauma
  • You’re practicing or considering self-harm
  • You’re feeling anxious, stressed, or depressed
  • Your relationships are suffering as a result of your actions

Our team of Cyti therapists is here to help you change. Start today by breaking your bad habits and making your first appointment. We can work with you to find the cause of your maladaptive behaviors and support you while you make the changes you need to enjoy a better life.

About the author: Theresa Boswell

Theresa is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I relocated to California after a short period in Kansas in 2016.  Growing up in a large family has allowed her to develop unique experiences that she draws from to foster resilience and growth in her patients.

She has over 20 years of experience in counseling and in the field of social services.  She has recently been a leader with Federally Qualified Health Care (FQHC) systems leading change within Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH) environments.  She received my education from the University of Wisconsin’s educational system, with obtaining her master’s in Social Work from UW-Madison and her doctorate in Counseling Psychology from UW-Milwaukee.

Read more about Theresa here >>

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. If you are in a crisis or any other person may be in danger,  these resources can provide you with immediate help:
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline 988
24 Hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1.800.273.8255
Crisis Text Line Text TALK to 741741