Overcontrolled Behavior vs. Undercontrolled Behavior

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | January 30, 2023

As children grow and their personalities continue to develop, many engage in distinct patterns of behavior that may become ingrained. There is a wide range of behavior considered normal and healthy, but some children’s behavior becomes problematic in ways that can affect their mental health in the long term if there is no intervention.

Undercontrolled and overcontrolled personality types fall on either end of a spectrum, where the desirable middle ground is resilience. If a child or adolescent’s behavior regularly stays on one end of the spectrum, they may require psychological intervention to help keep them mentally healthy as they grow. 

In This Article

What Is Undercontrolled?

Undercontrolled refers to lacking control or needing more help to control and regulate one’s emotions and behaviors. The undercontrolled personality type is the simpler of the two types to identify. Being “undercontrolled” is associated with public displays of emotion, like temper tantrums, and impulsive behaviors when emotionally dysregulated. An undercontrolled child frequently has difficulty exercising self-control and display big emotional gestures or even aggressive behaviors. 

Undercontrolled (UC) and Self-Injurious, Risky Behavior

One of the main worries about both overcontrolled and undercontrolled personalities is the tendency to engage in dangerous behaviors. Undercontrolled personality types are at higher risk of impulsive acts based on extreme emotions. These acts are more likely to involve other people in some capacity, whether they result directly in the injury of another or involve others in the aftermath, such as when the act results in a child making threats or engaging to aggressive behaviors towards self or others.

Undercontrolled Social Signaling

Undercontrolled Social Signaling

A critical difference between overcontrol and undercontrol is social signaling. Undercontrolled children lack inhibition, making their actions more unpredictable and dependent on their mood. Undercontrolled people have highly diverse and frequently changing modes of expression. Many undercontrolled children do try to control their more extreme reactions to negative emotions, although they typically do not succeed without help. 

Emotional outbursts may be a normal part of development, but many undercontrolled children do not develop a level of self-consciousness that reduces such episodes over time. The child’s inability to control their emotions and explore them healthily will often result in significant interpersonal issues and trouble in the classroom. Whereas overcontrolled children tend to hold their feelings back, the undercontrolled child is often very public with displays of emotion.

Other Signs of Undercontrolled temperament

It is helpful to frame undercontrolled personality traits in the light of symptoms associated with borderline personality disorder. Undercontrolled children have different responses to these criteria than overcontrolled children do.

1. Display of Anger

Display of anger is one of the most obvious symptoms of an undercontrolled personality. When an undercontrolled child gets angry, the results can be explosive. They direct their anger outward, and it may even involve violence, such as throwing objects or physically attacking others. The anger may seem sudden and severe for the circumstances, as undercontrolled children struggle with patience. 

2. Chronic Emptiness

This symptom is common to depression, although it can be challenging to identify in children. Feelings of emptiness in undercontrolled children may manifest in an inability to enjoy various activities, and a lack of fulfillment in school and recreational activities. 

3. Affective Instability

Mood swings are a hallmark of undercontrolled, and they are frequent as well as intense. Often, these mood swings result from external events or stimuli rather than internal triggers, and they lead to lashing out at other people. 

4. Impulsivity

Impulsivity in undercontrolled children is highly disruptive and impairs the ability to function in daily life. The impulsivity may also be habitual, as when a child regularly acts out during a specific class. 

5. Interpersonal Problems

Undercontrolled children often do not develop the social skills necessary to successfully interact with their peers. A younger child may be too physically rough to play well with others, while an older teen might have trouble socializing due to a tendency to let teasing get out of hand, for example. 

6. Identity Disturbance

The undercontrolled child’s personality often causes a lack of identity, or the child feeling like they don’t know who they are. This issue becomes more pronounced and disruptive as the child grows older and watches their peers develop distinct identities.

7. Abandonment

The prospect of abandonment, whether real or imagined, can cause severe outbursts in the undercontrolled child. They may appear quite frantic and resort to begging and pleading to stop the perceived abandonment. In some cases, they may use threats of physical harm or suicide.

What Is Overcontrolled?

The overcontrol personality type takes self-control to the extreme, to the detriment of the child’s growth and flexibility. The most notable overcontrolled personality traits include excessive inhibition and lack of flexibility. These children tend to be perfectionistic and perform well in school, which makes it more challenging to identify when they are struggling.

Children with overcontrol personalities spend considerable time masking negative emotions and adjusting their presentation to appear “fine” even when they are experiencing extreme feelings like anxiety or anger. Self control is necessary for individuals to function and succeed in life. However, an overcontrolled personality has excessive self-control which often leads to impairment in routine function and social difficulties due to inflexibility. 

Overcontrol and Self-Injurious or Risky Behavior

Children with overcontrolled personalities often feel isolated and struggle with self-harming or suicidal behaviors in private. In contrast with undercontrolled children, overcontrolled children do not act out these feelings impulsively. Overcontrolled coping means they are likely to plan any self-injurious or risky behavior and keep it a secret from others. For this reason, overcontrolled individual can often be a higher risk of suicide completion because others didn’t know that they needed help.

Overcontrolled Social Signaling

Overcontrolled Social Signaling

Children with overcontrolled temperaments usually present in one of two ways. They may have a flat affect and display little emotion or reaction, or they may go out of their way to appear prosocial and amiable. They may take pride in their ability to control any expression of emotion, and can often appear fine on the outside while experiencing distress internally.

Other Signs of Overcontrolled

In comparison to the undercontrolled population, the differences in how overcontrolled reacts is the following:

1. Display of Anger

Overcontrolled personalities do not like to express anger publicly, and may claim they are not angry when they are. Whenever possible, they instinctively hide strong emotions. When outbursts of anger do occur, they typically happen in private setting. They may direct their anger outburst at their closest relationships like family or friends but not typically with strangers or authority figures.

2. Chronic Emptiness

Overcontrolled children often struggle with making meaningful connections with others. They may also have difficulty making meaning and finding purpose when things don’t happen just the way the expected them to happen. 

3. Affective Instability

When an overcontrolled child experiences mood swings, it is usually because they are not meeting the internal standards to which they hold themselves. These changes in mood may not be perceptible to others, and if there is an expression of negative emotion, it is only after a significant period of bottling it up. Once they reach their limits of bottling up their feeling and have an outburst, this is called “leakage”.

4. Impulsivity

A central characteristic of the overcontrolled personality is the ability to control impulses, so any impulsivity experienced generally does not affect a child’s ability to function in daily life. When whims do arise, the child often fulfills them in ways that are not immediately obvious. They are likely be rule followers and think through ways to get what they want.

5. Interpersonal Problems

Overcontrolled children struggle to achieve closeness in social relationships, and may report having few or no friends at all. Alternatively, they may have many friends, but feel no strong sense of connection in their relationships. They may struggle with shyness or feelings of envy and bitterness, making it difficult to connect with others in a meaningful way.

6. Identity Disturbance

Children who are overcontrolled often feel the need to put on an act to be presentable to others, which can result in a confused or distorted sense of self. If a child experiences a lapse in the affect they present to others, they may view it as a personal failing. Children with this personality type often experience distress when they behave in a manner that is not consistent with the image they desire to project, such as when they suddenly display anger. 

7. Abandonment

Rather than fearing abandonment, overcontrolled personalities may push people away or abandon relationships themselves when there is interpersonal conflict, often due to the perception that navigating unpredictable, uncontrollable elements of a relationship is less desirable than shutting the other person out. Overcontrolled children may have significant difficulty making friends and sustaining friendships over the long term.

Therapy for Undercontrolled and Overcontrolled Individuals

While people may have either an undercontrol or overcontrol tendency in their temperament, most people still fall within the flexibility range that allow them to be resilient. However, when they are no longer in the flexible range and either have too little or too much self control, their day-to-day function and relationships suffer.

 Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy treatment designed to help people gain more skills to regulate and control their emotions and behaviors. It help patients reduce emotional extremes by developing new thought patterns and teaching actionable skills. This treatment is very helpful to help people who are undercontrolled manage their emotions and behaviors. The four stages of DBT after the pre-treatment stage are:

  1. Behavior Stabilization – Getting the “out-of-control” behaviors under control by reducing the problematic behaviors, life-interfering behaviors, and therapy interfering behaviors and increasing effective skills.
  2. Once out-of-control behaviors are managed, the next step is to work to improve emotional and mental state so that the individual can experience the full range of emotions in a healthy way. This is a stage where inhibited emotions from trauma and other issues are addressed.
  3. Managing issues of daily living. Now that the individual is in an emotional healthy space and their behaviors are no longer out-of-control, this stage address how to live a healthy life with all of it’s ups and down. The individual works on defining goals and building trust and respect for oneself. 
  4. Finding deeper meaning in life through a spiritual existence. This stage is highly personalized to each individual’s needs and not to be mistaken for a religious component. This stage of DBT is about finding and exploring your life purpose in order to develop a greater capacity to experience joy and fulfillment.

Radically Open DBT

Radically open dialectical therapy (RO-DBT) specifically addresses the complexities of over-control. It focuses on teaching people to be more open and less reactive to new experiences and stimuli, and advocates for flexibility in adapting to the changes in one’s environment. The most notable difference in RO-DBT is its emphasis on intimacy and social connection, which overcontrolled children struggle with the most. Three principles form the basis of RO-DBT. 

  1. Being receptive and open to new experiences and feedback to facilitate the learning process. 
  2. Adding flexibility to control to adapt to new and changing conditions of one’s environment.
  3. Improving intimacy and social connection, based on the premise that the ability to form long-term bonds is an innate human need. 

RO-DBT operates on the concept of biotemperament. This term refers to the many genetic and biological factors that modulate a person’s perception and regulation of emotions on both conscious and unconscious levels. RO-DBT teaches people appropriate ways to express their feelings and to use nonverbal social signaling that can improve social connection. 

This treatment modality addresses overcontrolled traits by teaching the client skills that activate brain regions associated with social safety. Patients learn how to use social signals such as relaxation of the facial muscles to improve their social interactions, making them more fluid and natural for all parties involved. 

RO-DBT helps people develop greater flexibility surrounding their emotions through acknowledging unpleasant or uncomfortable feelings and engaging in self-inquiry. They learn how to be open to new information and self-soothe after facing difficult situations. 

Benefits of Therapy for Overcontrolled and Undercontrolled Individuals 

Benefits of Therapy for Overcontrolled and Undercontrolled Individuals

The goal of therapy for people who are overcontrolled and undercontrolled is to achieve a level of control that is not on either extreme of the spectrum. DBT and RO-DBT can help with this in three ways. 

1. Identifying Emotions

The first step to reducing emotional extremes is being able to identify the emotions. Adolescents are often unable to pinpoint exactly what they are feeling, and the younger the child, the less experience they have with emotions altogether. People can’t manage what they don’t understand, both DBT and RO-DBT teach individuals to become more mindful and increase awareness of their emotions.

2. Regulating Emotions

Once individuals have gained the ability to better understand their emotions, therapy focuses on regulation of those emotions. Both types of therapy teaches clients how to evaluate the accuracy of emotions and cope with stressful situations through using skills. DBT teaches emotion regulation skills and RO-DBT teaches clients to communicate instead of masking over their suffering.

3. Altering Behaviors

The ultimate goal of therapy is for clients to use the tools provided to change how they react in emotionally charged situations. For example, an undercontrolled child participating in therapy will develop strategies to prevent physical lashing out in times of stress. An overcontrolled child will learn techniques that make it easier to engage with others and vocalize emotions, rather than internalizing them.

Get Help at Hillside

Get Help at Hillside

If you suspect your child is struggling with an undercontrolled or overcontrolled temperament, you’re likely worried about how their behavior will affect their future. It can be frightening to witness some of the non effective behaviors without having a solution for change.

Hillside is an organization with more than 130 years of experience serving children and teens in Atlanta, GA. At Hillside, we understand the impact of behavioral problems on kids and their families, and we are proud to use evidence-based treatments that help children develop into emotionally healthy adults.

If you believe your child could benefit from treatment, don’t hesitate to contact Hillside with your questions and concerns. Our admissions department can discuss treatment options to help your child. With different levels of care and specialized treatment to address each client’s unique needs, your child can become more resilient for the future.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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Current Version
May 9, 2024
Written By: Angie Hoke
Edited By: Angie Hoke
January 30, 2023
Medically Reviewed By: Angie Hoke