Externalizing Behaviors in Tweens and Teens

A boy being bullied by classmates in a school hallway

Phil Boorman / Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Most parents know that tweens and teens will act out, at least occasionally. These bad behaviors are known as externalizing behaviors. What are externalizing behaviors? In short, they are actions that direct problematic energy outward.

Learn to identify such behaviors with the examples that follow and get tips on the best way to confront such behaviors in tweens and teens with this review. Externalizing behaviors can not only lead adolescents into sticky situations but may leave long-standing consequences in their lives.

Defining Externalizing Behaviors With Examples

A child or an adult who exhibits externalizing behaviors engages in behaviors that harm others as opposed to lashing out at the self (which are known as internalizing behaviors). Externalizing behaviors include physical aggression, verbal bullying, relational aggression, defiance, theft, and vandalism.

Tweens show many externalized behaviors, especially when they are troubled or have other challenges going on in their lives. Boys are more likely than girls to show the more blatant externalized behaviors, such as physical bullying, but on the whole, levels of aggression are similar between the sexes.

Adolescents Are Vulnerable to Both Externalizing and Internalizing Behaviors

Oftentimes, tweens and teens exhibit both externalizing and internalizing behaviors. Adolescents may vandalize property (externalizing behavior) at school while also using drugs or alcohol (internalizing behavior). Parents may have one child who relies on externalizing behaviors to cope with another who relies on internalizing behaviors. While the former child may be considered "the problem child," both children need help and intervention before they harm themselves or others.


Children who display externalizing behaviors may face a number of consequences for their behaviors. On a mild level, this can include notes sent home from teachers concerned about the youth's disruptive behavior in class. This can escalate to school detention, suspensions or even expulsions.

Some schools have zero tolerance policies involving drug use, bullying or weapons. So, children who engage in externalizing behavior using these methods may find themselves kicked out of school.

At worst, children who act out instead of inward (internalizing behavior) may find themselves arrested for theft, vandalism or assault, or they may face consequences at school such as expulsions. This can mark the start of a long journey in the criminal justice system if the behavior isn't corrected.

Why Children Exhibit Externalizing Behaviors

Children may act out in ways that harm others for a variety of different reasons. They could be victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. They may have lost a parent or another close relative to death or experienced a divorce, parental abandonment or other traumatic experience, such as domestic violence, the incarceration of a parent or the substance abuse problem of a parent.

Some children who act out in destructive ways may suffer from mental illnesses or a personality disorder. On the other hand, many children with learning disabilities act out to deflect attention from the fact that they're having difficulty learning. Being kicked out of class may seem preferable to them than having their learning disability exposed.

Whatever the reason children engage in externalizing behaviors, it's important that they get help and intervention. This may include counseling, therapy or an evaluation for a learning disability or disorder.

Talk with your child's teacher or administrator about getting help or consult a licensed medical professional.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Samek DR, Hicks BM. Externalizing Disorders and Environmental Risk: Mechanisms of Gene-Environment Interplay and Strategies for InterventionClin Pract (Lond). 2014;11(5):537–547. doi:10.2217/CPR.14.47

  2. Narusyte J, Ropponen A, Alexanderson K, Svedberg P. Internalizing and externalizing problems in childhood and adolescence as predictors of work incapacity in young adulthoodSoc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52(9):1159–1168. doi:10.1007/s00127-017-1409-6

By Rebecca Fraser-Thill
Rebecca Fraser-Thill holds a Master's Degree in developmental psychology and writes about child development and tween parenting.