Developmental Psychopathology in Psychological Theorizing

It was learnt in the lessons that there are three basic frameworks for understanding human behaviour.  Under the systems approach to human behaviour, psychologists have so far identified two prominent frameworks.  The Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model (also referred as bio-ecological model) focuses on systems and human development.  The bio-ecological model is derived out of developmental psychology.  The bio-ecology model argues that individuals develop within the context of their ecology, which in turn can be broken down into the micro-system, the meso-system, the exo-system and the macro-system.  The micro-system includes the family, the local neighbourhood, influential institutions in early life such as the school, church, etc.  Similarly, the Exo-system of an individual “consists of linkages involving social settings that individuals do not experience directly, but can still influence their development.”  (Lesson1a, p.3)  The Macro-system refers to the wider cultural context of the individual including the economic, social context that he/she occupies.  To these, Bronfenbrenner also added the concept of chrono-system, which identifies the particular milieu in which the individual’s lifespan falls.

The Carter & McGoldrick’s Family Life Cycle Model, on the other hand, focuses on the family as the core ‘unit’ and attempts to theorize its development over the life course. This model has its roots in applied social work.  One of the basic underlying assumptions in this model is that “all families go through predictable change precipitated by life events”. (Lesson1a, p.5)  For example, death, marriage, etc, are predictable developmental events, whereas divorce and separation of family members due to war, etc, are unpredictable events. This framework is quite useful for making generalized studies of societies and to come up with proposals for improvement.  It treats dysfunctional families as exceptions to the ideal family template and refers to it as families ‘derailed’ at a crucial transition phase.  One weakness of this framework is that it works best for nuclear family setups but doesn’t account for larger family setups.

The third framework learnt in the course is the Developmental Psychopathology model, which concerns itself with aberrant and abnormal human behaviour.  The model is defined as “the study of the origins and course of individual patterns of development and deviation or distortions that occur throughout and across the life span and the processes associated with those maladaptive outcomes.” (Lesson 1b, p.2)  By identifying risk factors and predicting the likelihood of maladaptive behaviors and cognitive processes, the framework helps initiate timely interventions.  Developmental risk factors are grouped under categories such as Constitutional, Family, Emotional & Interpersonal, Intellectual & Academic, Ecological and Nonnormative Stressful Life Events.  The utility of this model is enhanced by its description of four protective mechanisms.  These are namely – Reduction of Risk Impact, Reduction of Negative Chain Reactions, Development of Self-esteem and Self-efficacy and Opening of Opportunities.  By presenting constructive mitigation strategies this model goes beyond analysis and theorizing.

In sum, all three frameworks have their own unique characteristics as well as commonalities.  No one framework is inherently superior to the other and their application would depend on the clinical/diagnostic context.  Depending on the scale, subject and purpose of investigation the appropriate model can be chosen. But certainly, these models are advancement to the traditional theories of human behavior and psychopathology.


Sroufe, L. A. (1997). Psychopathology as an outcome of development. Development and Psychopathology, 9, 251-268.

Ollendick, T. H., & Vasey, M. W. (1999). Developmental theory and the practice of clinical child psychology. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 28, 457-466.