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Expressing Childhood Trauma Through Externalizing Behaviours

Externalizing Behaviour :

Have you ever smashed a piece of crockery or something similar out of anger or frustration? (I know I have.) If so, you were using what psychologists term an externalizing behaviour.

Such behaviours are an expression of our negative feelings directed outward into the external environment. (Internalizing behaviours, in contrast, involve us turning our negative feelings inward, harming our internal, mental world, such as depressive behaviour, anxious behaviour, withdrawn behaviour etc). Of course, people may use both internalizing and externalizing behaviours.

In this article, however, I will concentrate on externalizing behaviours that young children and/or adolescents may display; these include:

– aggression, hostility, verbal and physical abusiveness, fighting

– oppositional defiant disorder

– intermittent explosive disorder

– anti-social behaviour

– burglary, robbery, theft, stealing

– cheating, dishonesty, lying

– arson

– vandalism

– hyperactivity

– general delinquency

– running away from home

– drug/alcohol abuse

– flagrant and gratuitous rule-breaking


The Effects:

Research (e.g. Farrington) shows that those young people who have a high level of externalizing behaviours are at elevated risk of becoming adult criminals. They are also more likely to suffer from alcohol/drug abuse as adults.

Those children who are prone to fits of rage, tantrums and are extremely and intensely argumentative are more likely to experience anxiety disorders as adults.

The more externalizing behaviours the young person uses, and the more severe these are, the greater the risk is that the child will suffer from mental illness during adulthood.

During their childhood, children who use a high level of externalizing behaviours are more likely to be ostracized by their contemporaries, fail to reach their potential in their school studies, partake in risky/unprotected sex and have alcohol and drug problems during their teenage years.

What Are The Causes Of Externalizing Behaviours?

There are several risk factors that, if exposed to, make it more likely that a young person will start using the kind of externalizing behaviours that I have listed above; the main ones are as follows:

– abuse (physical/mental/emotional

– genetic risk factors (Rowe, 1983)

– learning (this may come about by frequently being exposed to a parent using externalizing behaviours)

– biological risk factors

– having parents who have little time for their children and show little interest in them (Shaw et al.)

– being brought up in a household in which the parent/s is/are frequently under high levels of stress

– family poverty

– the child resulted from a pregnancy that the mother had a negative attitude towards

– a child who resulted from a teenage pregnancy

– growing up in a family in which there is prevalent drug/alcohol abuse

A Closer Look At Hyperactivity :

It is useful to take a closer look at this childhood disorder/externalizing behaviour as about one in twenty children in the U.S. have been diagnosed as suffering from it.

There are three categories of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) :

1) In this category children’s main difficulty is maintaining their attention

2) In this category children’s main difficulty is constant restlessness and an impaired ability to control their impulses

3) A combination of 1 and 2 above.

Research conducted by Lillienfeld (1989) found that those children suffering from ADHD were more likely to develop into criminal adults than non-ADHD children.

Furthermore, Lynam’s (1988) research suggested that those suffering from both conduct Disorder and ADHD were at increased risk of eventually developing into adult psychopaths.


The earlier risk factors which may contribute to a young person developing an array of externalizing behaviours, and the earlier a young person already exhibiting externalizing behaviours, can be identified, the more likely it is that preventative measures can be implemented effectively (eg counselling of the young person, family support/advice etc).


Farrington DP. Childhood aggression and adult violence: Early precursors and later-life outcomes. In: Pepler DJ, Rubin KH, editors. The development and treatment of childhood aggression. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 1991. pp. 5–29. 

Scout O.LilienfeldIrwin D.WaldmanThe relation between childhood attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and adult antisocial behavior reexamined: The problem of heterogeneity. 

Lynam, D. R. (1998). Early identification of the fledgling psychopath: Locating the psychopathic child in the current nomenclature. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107(4), 566–575.

Rowe, D. C. (1983). Biometrical genetic models of self-reported delinquent behavior: a twin study. Behavior Genetics 13(5): 473–489.

ShawD. S.WinslowE. B.OwensE. B.VondraJ. I.CohnJ. F., & BellR. Q. (1998). The development of early externalizing problems among children from low-income families: A transformational perspectiveJournal of Abnormal Child Psychology2695107.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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