What is Developmental Psychopathology?

| Staff Writers

Viewing normal child development side-by-side with developmental psychopathology may hold the key to preventing psychological disorders in children and adolescents. Developmental psychology has long studied the growth and development of children to give them better educational opportunities and other advantages, but it has been studied apart from abnormal, or pathological child psychology. The latest trend in the field, however, is to examine them together to find the points at which the normal and the pathological diverge. Professionals hope to intervene at those points to change the negative outcomes.

Defining Terms

Developmental psychology is the study of the way individuals develop over the course of a lifetime. Developmental psychopathology focuses on how and when psychological disorders develop and how they affect the outcome or totality of the life. Some of the disorders studied include autism, depression, and schizophrenia.

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The New Approach

Once, psychologists studied normal child development as a separate field from abnormal psychological development. It was discovered, however, that child development is a continuum affected by both positive and negative variables. The growth of a child proceeds normally until it makes unsuccessful adaptations to these variables. At that juncture, there is often created a psychological pathology that will affect later life or arrest psychological development. Practitioners in the field focus on at-risk populations that “may or may not be exhibiting symptoms of abnormal behavior.” Through such study the researchers hope to be able to predict and proactively intervene to prevent pathological behavior. In a book about child abuse, for instance, the American Psychological Association cites the study of cases to find how and why the abuse affects normal child development. The studies also investigate why some children seem to be resilient while others are more fragile. Practitioners hope to devise more “timely and efficient interventions.” Some of the indicators professionals examine are physiological factors, genetic, social, emotional, and cognitive elements as well as cultural events.

Some Relevant Principles

This psychological discipline can be viewed through the lenses of different principles or concepts, according to the National Institute of Health. One, the Normal Versus Atypical, studies normal development to use as a comparison for abnormal behavior. At what point, for instance, does problematic behavior become a psychological disorder and not just an expected stage of growth? Another principle is the Categorical Versus the Dimensional Interpretation. The categorical approach defines a pathology by the presence of symptoms. The Dimensional interpretation focuses on the degree of abnormal behavior the child exhibits. That is important because a child, for instance, who actually is depressed may not exhibit an abundance of depressive symptoms, and a child who displays the symptoms may not actually be depressed. The third principle is a Contextual Focus. This principle considers the “when and where” of the behaviors exhibited and the responses of peers and parents to them. Many of the behaviors are progressive and go from being “annoying” in a younger child to destructive and dangerous in an adolescent.

The goal of the science, of course, goes beyond mere recognition of the factors involved in intervention. Children who exhibit progressive abnormal behaviors are at risk to become abusive parents, which repeats the cycle. Developmental psychopathology is important because it identifies at-risk children and creates “timely and efficient” interventions to interrupt the maladaptive behavior and bring about a good outcome for the child.

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