What are Internalizing Behaviors?

This is the act of directing energy (that are actually responses to issues) back to one’s self. This energy is usually negative and is a person’s response to issues instead of expressing themselves to others. Such behaviors typically include difficulty sleeping, cutting, eating too little or too much, anxiety, feeling depressed, abusing substance, as well as social withdrawal. Individuals who have been sexually, verbally, emotionally, or physically abused may also engage in such behaviors. 

For instance, a young boy, who has been bullied by a peer, may respond to the situation by blaming himself or withdrawing from social activities. Children who have experienced other forms of trauma, such as divorce, parental abandonment, or a loved one’s death, can also show internalizing behaviors.

Internalizing behaviors may trigger serious health problems for children, such as alcoholism, bulimia, drug addiction, obesity, or anorexia. Children who depend on internalizing behaviors as a coping mechanism may also find it difficult to form healthy relationships with others. Since they often direct their problematic energy inward to numb their emotional pain, they may feel disconnected from their loved ones, friends, and even themselves.

Unlike externalizing behaviors that affect other people directly and are noticed rather easily, internalizing behaviors tend to go unnoticed and are considered more “socially acceptable.” Sometimes, parents are at fault as they end up focusing exclusively on their child with externalizing behaviors while ignoring the signals of help sent out by another child who’s directing his pain inward. For instance, as parents, noticing a gain or loss of a significant amount of weight could indicate internalizing behavior. Another example is where the child seems to wear long clothes all the time, which may be a sign of covering up her self-inflicted cuts or wounds. Noticing subtler signs of distress is equally crucial. For instance, a child may suffer from symptoms like nausea, abdominal pain, or headaches that trigger emotional stress, which further exacerbates the displayed symptoms. The child may find it difficult to break this vicious cycle without help.

Once parents notice signs of internalizing behaviors, such as dramatic physical changes or visible cuts and bruises, they should speak to their children in a non-judgmental way. In case they observe clear signs of substance abuse like sluggishness, bloodshot eyes, disorientation, headaches, or nausea, they shouldn’t ignore the child. It’s important to accept that a child may have problems even if he doesn’t act outwardly. Feelings of being unloved, sadness, guilt, loneliness, not standing up for oneself, irritability or nervousness, fearfulness, and difficulty concentrating are all signs of internalized behaviors.

Children engaged in internalizing behaviors should get all the help they need. Parents should talk to a psychotherapist, their children’s school counselor, or other healthcare professionals to know how they can offer help and tools the children will need to create more positive coping mechanisms. In addition, psychotherapy (including cognitive-behavioral therapy) and counseling are effective ways to unearth the trauma or difficulties that have made the children cope by depending on internalizing behaviors. Early identification, intervention, and prevention via mitigation of risk factors are equally crucial in helping at-risk children.

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