What Is Abnormal Behavior?

Consistently breaking school rules may be a sign of abnormal behavior.
Some people who are antisocial intimidate others and continually break the law.
Appropriate attachment to caregivers in infancy affects the quality of attachments as people age.
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  • Written By: Maggie Worth
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2014
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The term "abnormal behavior" can refer to any action or behavior that is unusual, but is most commonly used to describe the actions and behaviors associated with psychological conditions. This encompasses a large range of behavior types that fall outside normal or acceptable behavioral patterns. Behavior modification therapy is often used to resolve abnormal behavior and convert inappropriate actions and interactions to appropriate ones.

Common types of abnormal behavior include antisocial behaviors, such as breaking laws; failing to respect the needs and boundaries of others; and injuring or abusing others, either verbally or physically. Other common abnormal behaviors include talking to people who do not exist, displaying inappropriate attachments to strangers, the inability to form attachments to friends and family members, and the inability to leave home due to incapacitating fears. People who behave abnormally also may perform actions repeatedly and obsessively or may experience delusions, hallucinations, phobias, or paranoid episodes.

Psychologists and behavioral therapists often focus on identifying the cause of abnormal behavior. In some cases, these causes are organic, meaning that they stem from an imbalance of chemicals in the brain or from another similar physical condition. These conditions often are controlled with prescription medications, such as anti-psychotics and anti-anxiety medications, but many see some improvement from long-term therapy and diet and lifestyle changes.

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Abnormal behavior may also stem from psychological conditions. There is some evidence that some such conditions are inherited genetically, but many are caused by environmental factors. These factors could be long-term or may be a single event, and they can cause behavioral repercussions in childhood or adulthood.

For example, a child raised with parents who display antisocial behaviors may learn to behave antisocially. If this behavior goes uncorrected, the child may eventually teach her own children to behave abnormally one day. Likewise, a woman who is the victim of an assault may develop a fear of being victimized again that results in a fear of the world in general. Such a woman might eventually be unable to leave her home because her fear is so intense.

Once the abnormal behaviors and their causes are identified, the work of modifying behavior can begin. Therapy can involve group or one-on-one sessions that might occur in either a residential or an outpatient basis. Work could include facing fears, finding ways to empower the self, and learning or relearning to behave appropriately. Therapies also may be augmented with short- or long-term medications as deemed necessary by a psychiatrist or medical doctor.

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Discuss this Article

allenJo
Post 15

@miriam98 - That’s a good point. I don’t think you can separate the definition of normalcy from cultural mores. However, there are some things that are out of boundaries no matter when or in what culture you live.

People who talk to themselves constantly or live as social recluses are abnormal. Then again, I have to ask, is it all that bad?

I am very fascinated by the notion of the “savant” who comes across as abnormal and eccentric but turns out to be a genius. Perhaps their mental disability, if you can call it that, is a reflection of a mind in creative overdrive.

It causes them to come up with brilliant solutions in one arena, while causing them to be socially awkward and withdrawn. I watched the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” about a brilliant mathematician who went over the deep end. It was a fascinating character study in genius and neuroses.

miriam98
Post 14

Who defines what’s normal? Some things are obvious but other factors lead me to believe the abnormal behavior definition is influenced by society as much as psychology.

For example, a little more than fifty years ago, psychology textbooks classified homosexuality as abnormal behavior. Today, it’s not.

Many people still view it as abnormal while there are others who view it as a product of nature or nurture, an alternative lifestyle, but certainly not something that is abnormal.

This is one example, I think, where the discipline of psychology or psychiatry has succumbed to the social pressures of the times in which we live.

Moldova
Post 13

I was watching a program the other day that dealt with hoarding which I think is an aspect of abnormal behavior in psychology. Many of these people that were featured on the show lived in deplorable conditions and they held on to things like empty bottles and paper wrappers that really had no significance.

I really don’t understand why someone would hold on to things like this. I can definitely understand the sentimental attachment to certain memories but I don’t understand why they are paralyzed to throw away trash like bottles and newspapers.

The hoarding also keeps many of these people isolated from loved ones which I think makes them more depressed.

surfNturf
Post 12

@Seag47- Wow, poor thing. Your mom must have a lot of anxiety and it really must affect the quality of her life. It sounds like your mom might have agoraphobia. That is an intense fear of going outdoors.

I was reading that Paula Dean, the famous chef also suffered from this condition and it was not until a few years ago that she finally got treated for this condition.

There are many therapists that do home visits and eventually make their clients take a step forward and go to their office. I think that phobias are more common than many people think.

I just feel that it is so sad when you are afraid to leave your house because you really miss out on so much .

seag47
Post 11

My mother has always been very shy. She grew up as an only child, and she let teasing by her classmates affect her deeply. She doesn't seem interested in making friends, and she avoids social situations as much as possible.

A few years ago, she became increasingly fearful of leaving the house. She left only to get groceries. She has now become afraid even to do that.

I go grocery shopping for her once a week, and some people in my family have started calling me an enabler. I'm afraid that she would starve if I didn't do it!

I want to get her help, but I can't make her leave the house to go see a therapist. Does anyone know if there are therapists who make house calls for special situations like this? She will never get help if she has to go anywhere to get it.

OeKc05
Post 10

@summing – Only you can know what is abnormal behavior for your friend. What might be abnormal for one person could be perfectly typical for another.

For instance, I have a friend who doesn't associate much with other people. He stays cooped up in his house and doesn't go to parties. For him, this is normal.

It would be abnormal if he suddenly became interested in social events. I would wonder what happened to him.

If your friend is normally sociable and friendly and he has suddenly withdrawn into himself, then he might be back on drugs. Any notable change in behavior has a cause and is worth looking into. It could possibly be that he is just now suffering the effects of years of drug use, but it might also be true that he has gone back to using.

Perdido
Post 9

Sometimes it's hard to tell when your child has abnormal behavior. Children are so imaginative that they frequently do things that adults would be deemed crazy for doing.

Imaginary friends allow children to seemingly talk to themselves without being considered strange. Children have so much energy that they can run in circles just for fun, but if an adult did this, we would consider it abnormal.

I suppose if a child were hitting himself or exhibiting irrational fear, this would be a sign that something is wrong. Other than that, the scope of what is considered “normal behavior” for kids is vast.

shell4life
Post 8

I have a friend with obsessive compulsive disorder. Several things that she does are very abnormal, but at least I know why she does them.

It's really hard to go shopping with her, because I never know when she will stop and reorganize the shelves. On several occasions, people have come up to her and asked where to find something, because they think that she must work there.

She is undergoing therapy for her condition. I think it must be helping, because she came over yesterday and didn't even move the salt and pepper shakers around like she always does.

Mykol
Post 7

One of my psychology classes in college talked about the essentials of understanding abnormal behavior. Even though I received a little bit of insight into this, I realized it is very vast and complicated.

My sister in law has some very antisocial behavior that she has struggled with for many years. I think a lot of this goes back to a troubled childhood and two marriages that were emotionally abusive.

She is on several different medications and sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis. She spends most of her time at home and going to the doctor. Other than that she doesn't get out much as social situations are really hard for her.

If she does come to a family event she takes extra medication before she comes to make it through. If you didn't know her story, you would never realize this because she interacts well with others and seems to enjoy herself.

Sometimes I wonder if it would be helpful if she quit all of her medication and started over. I don't know how she knows what is working and what isn't, but I know she would be too scared to try this.

John57
Post 6

@summing - My sister began having abnormal behavior, and would not be able to sleep at night. She would wander around inside and outside the house. She was also very paranoid and said her husband was a stranger in the house.

She never had any of these symptoms when she was a child, so understanding this abnormal behavior was hard. This was all happening because of a chemical imbalance in her brain.

Once she got on the right medication, her symptoms improved and her behavior was pretty normal, for the most part.

There are so many different reasons why someone exhibits abnormal behavior. This is one of the hardest things to treat because not only are there physical problems, but many times there are genetic, environmental and social problems that go along with it.

Your friend is like so many others in this situation who don't think they need any help. They really don't think there is anything wrong with their behavior and are usually very resistant to any kind of treatment.

Seeking out some kind of help is usually the first step toward healing.

summing
Post 5

Can anyone give me some examples of abnormal behavior? I know that this can be difficult to pinpoint but I have a friend who has been acting very weird lately. He has had some stress in his life and has a history of drug problems and I wonder if he might be having deeper psychological problems.

He is very averse to getting any help. I feel like if I could figure something out and provide a strong case to him maybe he will seek out some treatment. I am not a psychologist, but if I knew some things to look for it might help me to understand what he is going through.

ZsaZsa56
Post 4

Abnormal behavior is an interesting concept. It seems like there is a lot of fine lines involved. On the one hand some people are just different. It is not bad. It is not dangerous or destructive, rather it is often a refreshing break from the norm.

To suggest that behavior is abnormal is to claim that there is a certain type of behavior that is normal and that is a tricky thing to claim. People are different, there are lots of ways to live. Sometimes we call people abnormal just because they are not exactly like us.

burcidi
Post 3

It's not only humans who can have abnormal psychology. My dog has it as well, she has been diagnosed with separation anxiety by the vet.

I adopted my dog from the shelter six months ago. She was abandoned by her first owners and was picked up by the shelter workers from the street. When she came to my home, I was at home for about a week and didn't notice anything wrong with her. But then, when I started leaving the house more and more, she had abnormal behavior like destroying anything she could get to in the house while I was gone, despite being a completely well behaved dog when I'm home.

The vet said that my dog is afraid of being abandoned and experiences extreme anxiety when left alone. She has been put on anti-anxiety medication so that we could put her behavior in check. It has helped her a lot. We haven't experienced a problem in the past month.

candyquilt
Post 2

@burcinc-- Actually the fact that someone has abnormal behavior doesn't mean that they are 'crazy' or that they have a mental illness.

The term abnormal behavior is used by psychologists and psychiatrists a lot. But it doesn't really refer to mental illness. Mental illness happens when there is some sort of systematic malfunction in the nervous system or the way the brain works.

Abnormal behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that's different from the norm and that's probably a result of experiences like trauma or stress. It doesn't mean that this person has an illness.

I think you're talking about how this term is used socially. But I think that's a whole different discussion than the definition of abnormal behavior in Psychiatry and Psychology.

burcinc
Post 1

I'm not referring to serious psychiatric issues, but people seem to label others as being abnormal too easily.

Sometimes when people do something different than what others are used to, even if it's not a bad thing, it's labelled as abnormal behavior. This makes me wonder, how do we define abnormal behavior? Who is the authority to decide what is abnormal and what is normal?

In history, many scientists and artist were considered to be abnormal and crazy. But as time passed and we came to recognize their accomplishments, we now say that they were extremely intelligent, brilliant and even that they were prodigies.

Abnormal has a very negative connotation and I think labeling someone as abnormal is so bad for their psychological health. Why can't we call them different instead?

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