Internalizing Behavior in Tweens

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 for 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.

Signs of Internalizing Behaviors

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.

Your child may have a problem even if 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.

Getting Help

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.

5 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. Willner CJ, Gatzke-Kopp LM, Bray BC. The dynamics of internalizing and externalizing comorbidity across the early school yearsDev Psychopathol. 2016;28(4pt1):1033–1052. doi:10.1017/S0954579416000687

  2. Bakken NW, Gunter WD. Self-Cutting and Suicidal Ideation among Adolescents: Gender Differences in the Causes and Correlates of Self-InjuryDeviant Behavior. 2012;33(5):339-356. doi:10.1080/01639625.2011.584054

  3. Hong JS, Espelage DL, Rose CA. Bullying, Peer Victimization, and Child and Adolescent Health: An Introduction to the Special IssueJ Child Fam Stud. 2019;28(9):2329-2334. doi:10.1007/s10826-019-01502-9

  4. Narconon International. Signs and Symptoms of Drug Use.

  5. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Trauma Awareness. Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services.

Additional Reading

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