Externalizing Behaviors: Examples & Definition Video

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Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Externalizing behaviors are negative behaviors that are directed toward the external environment. Learn about the effects of externalizing behaviors, how they influence adulthood, and more.

What Are Externalizing Behaviors?

Imagine that you are a fifth grade teacher. You notice that one of your students has been showing certain behavior problems. He refuses to complete classroom assignments, gets out of his seat, and disturbs his classmates. Although you have attempted to talk to him about his behavior, he continues to cause disruption and refuses to follow classroom rules. You finally decide to call his mother when he hits another student in the classroom.

The behavior problems of your student - disobeying rules, physical aggression, and threatening others - are examples of externalizing behaviors. These are problem behaviors that are directed toward the external environment. Instead of expressing their negative emotions or responses to life pressures in a healthy or productive way, people with externalizing behaviors direct their feelings outward to other people or things. For example, a child who's having trouble comprehending schoolwork may choose to bully a classmate who is doing well in school.

Here are some examples of externalized behaviors:

  • Fighting
  • Cursing
  • Stealing
  • Destruction of property
  • Arson
  • Running away from home
  • Underage drinking
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Refusal to follow rules, including written laws and curfews

Who Displays Externalizing Behaviors?

Externalizing behaviors can be seen in some children at the age of two. Infants who have a difficult temperament are more likely to have externalizing behaviors than infants who do not. Certain externalizing behaviors, such as delinquency and vandalism, are more typical of adolescence, especially due to the onset of puberty and the physiological changes that are related to puberty. Girls are less likely to display externalizing behaviors than boys in adolescence.

Adults also experience externalizing behaviors. For example, adults who are having trouble managing strong emotions may choose to break things when they get frustrated.

Effects of Externalizing Behaviors

Externalizing behaviors in childhood and adolescence may be indicative of more serious problems later in life. For example, children and adolescents with externalizing behaviors have a greater risk of engaging in substance abuse and criminal behavior in adulthood. Children who display externalizing behaviors have a greater risk of being bullied and rejected by their peers than children who do not engage in externalizing behaviors. They are also more likely to have academic problems, engage in sexual risk-taking behaviors, and use drugs as adolescents.

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