How Do Tweens Exhibit Internalizing Behaviors?

Why parents should take note of such behaviors

A teenage girl alone on the couch.
A teenage girl alone on the couch.. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Young people who act out typically have no trouble attracting the attention of parents and teachers, but their peers who act inward, or engage in internalizing behaviors, may be overlooked. The truth of the matter is that tweens and teens who use internalizing behaviors to cope with challenges in life need just as much help as adolescents who openly engage in self-destructive manners.

Better your understanding of internalizing behaviors and their potential negative consequences with this review.

Defining Internalizing Behaviors

Internalizing behaviors are actions that direct problematic energy toward the self. In other words, a person who shows internalizing behaviors does things that harm himself as opposed to lashing out at others (which are known as externalizing behaviors). Internalizing behaviors include eating too much or too little, feeling depressed, abusing substances and cutting.

Internalizing behaviors may lead a child to develop serious health problems, such as drug addiction, alcoholism, anorexia, bulimia or obesity. Children who use internalizing behaviors to cope may have trouble forming healthy relationships with others. Because internalizing behaviors help children and adults numb the emotional pain they're experiencing, they may feel cut off from their friends, loved ones and themselves.

Troubled tweens often demonstrate internalizing behaviors. For instance, internalizing behaviors have been found in victims of bullying, in bullies and in obese tweens.

Children who have been verbally, sexually, physically or emotionally abused may engage in such behaviors. The same goes for children who've experienced other forms of trauma, such as the death of a loved one, parental abandonment or divorce.

Internalizing behaviors are more likely to go unnoticed and are more "socially acceptable" than externalizing behaviors, which directly affect other people.

Sometimes parents make the mistake of concentrating solely on their child with externalizing behaviors, ignoring the cries of help of a child who's turning his pain inward.

If you notice that your child has appeared to gain or lose a significant amount of weight, don't ignore this sign of internalizing behavior. And if your child appears to cover up in long clothing all the time, this may be a sign that she's cutting.

Speak with your child in a non-judgmental way about dramatic physical changes you notice. Don't ignore your child if she appears to show tell-tale signs of substance abuse, such as bloodshot eyes, nausea, headaches, disorientation or sluggishness. Don't assume that your child doesn't have a problem because she doesn't appear to be outwardly acting out. A child who engages in internalizing behaviors isn't any healthier than a child who gets called to the principal's office for disrupting class or disobeying teachers.

Wrapping Up

If your child is engaging in internalizing or externalizing behaviors, it's important that she gets the help she needs.

Speak with your child's school counselor, a psychotherapist or other health care professionals about giving your child the help necessary to develop more positive coping methods. Counseling and psychotherapy may help your child uncover the challenges or trauma that have caused her to cope by relying on internalizing behaviors.


Phares, Vicky. Understanding Abnormal Child Psychology, Second Edition. 2008. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

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