UNDERSTANDING ABNORMAL CHILD PSYCHOLOGY
INTRODUCTION TO NORMAL AND ABNORMAL BEHAVIOUR IN CHILDREN AND
Children’s mental health has been riddled with misunderstanding, silence, and outright abuse for
centuries, but are now receiving greater attention
Children’s mental health issues differ from those of adults in many ways
Georgina: Counting for Safety
Obsessive compulsive counting rituals
As early as age 5, her mother recalls her arranging things a certain way
o She would walk through doorways over and over
o Need to check and arrange things her way before she could leave a room
Family doctor advised it was simply a phase, like not to step on cracks
o But she developed more elaborate rituals
o Counting in groups of 4
Georgina was constantly terrified of forgetting a passage or objects or being interrupted
o If she did not complete the counting, something horrible would happen (tragedy would
befall her or her parents)
Night-time was the worst, because it took a while to complete the ritual
Daytime school activity and social connections were also interrupted
First, consider Georgina’s case
o Are there any aspects of her behaviour that seem abnormal, or normal under certain
How would you describe her problem?
o Is it emotional? Learning? Developmental disability?
o Could something in her environment cause these strange rituals, or is she more likely
responding to internal cues we do not know about?
o Would this behaviour be viewed differently if a child from an African or Hispanic
background performed them?
o Will she continue to display these behaviours, and if so, what can we do to help?
Issues that research studies in abnormal child psychology seek to address
Defining what constitutes normal and abnormal behaviour for children of different ages, sexes,
and ethnic and cultural backgrounds
Identifying the causes and correlates of abnormal child behaviour
Making predictions about long-term outcomes
Developing and evaluating methods for treatment and/or prevention
First step toward understanding the nature of children problems is how you choose to describe the
problems children show, and what harm/impairment such problems may lead to
o For example, Georgina’s symptoms fit the criteria for OCD
While the label is far from perfect, it tells a long about the nature of her disorder,
the course of the disorder and possible treatment
Important features which distinguish most child and adolescent disorders
When adults seek services for children, it is often not clear whose “problem” it is Many child and adolescent problems involve failure to show expected developmental progress
Many problem behaviours shown by children and youth are not entirely abnormal
Interventions for children and adolescents often are intended to promote further development,
rather than restore previous functioning
Historical Views and Breakthroughs
In early Greece, children were considered servants of the state
o Any person (young or old) with a physical or mental disability were a burden and
Prior to the 18 century, youth mental health was of no interest
o During religious eras, it was attributed to possession or other supernatural explanations
During the 17 and 18 centuries, many children died before the age of 5 from lack of medical
o Many children were also subjected to harsh treatment by parents as well (children are
The Emergence of the Social Conscience
Conditions improved during the 19 century and into the 20h
o However until very recently children and other minority groups were the last to benefit
from society’s prosperity
In the 17 century, John Locke proposed humane care and institutions of social protection
o Influenced beginning of childbirth and childrearing practices used today
One of 1 documented efforts to work with special needs child was in 19 century
o Jean Marc Itard who discovered Victor (wild boy)
Latter half of 19 century, children unable to handle school came into focus
o Leta Hollingworth argued disordered children were suffering from emotional and
behavioural problems from inept treatment by adults and no intellectual challenge
Concern for children’s welfare advanced because of
o Advances in medicine, physiology and neurology
E.g., Dorothy Dix
o Influence of philosophies of Locke that led to the view that children need guidance and
Early Biological Attributions
Early Psychological Attributions
Evolving Forms of Treatment
What Is Abnormal Behaviour in Children and Adolescents?
Early life of Lee Harvey Oswald (sniper who killed Kennedy)
o Probation officer recalls Oswald saying kids at school made fun of him and he preferred
to be alone, so he did not attend school, and was often home alone because mother was
Also mentioned he supposed he loved his mother
The main issue was truancy, which would seem minor, but was linked to a lot of other issues,
including alienation at school, dislike of school, lack of emotional closeness to mother
o How do we know what is normal?
o When does an issue become a problem?
o Why do some children’s abnormal patterns of behaviour continue into adulthood and
others do not?
Although these questions are central to defining and understand abnormal child
behaviour, no simple answer exists
Often, childhood disorders are accompanied by layers of abnormal
behaviour or development
Defining Psychological Disorders
A psychological disorder traditionally is defined as a pattern of behavioural, cognitive,
emotional, or physical symptoms shown by an individual
Such a pattern is associated with one or more of the following three prominent features:
1. Person shows some degree of distress
2. Behaviour indicates some degree of disability or impairment, which interferes with or
limits activity in one or more areas of functioning
3. Such distress and disability increase the risk of further suffering or harm or loss of
Excludes circumstances where such reactions are expected and appropriate according to one’s
o E.g., death of a loved one
These three features do not attribute causes or reason for abnormal behaviour, only what a person
does or does not do
Psychological Disorder p. 11
A pattern of behavioural, cognitive, or physical symptoms that includes one or more of the following
prominent features: (a) some degree of distress in the subject; (b) behaviour indicating some degree of
disability; and (c) an increased risk of suffering, death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom.
Labels Describe Behaviour, Not People
The field of child and adult mental health is often challenged by stigma, which refers to a cluster
of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate fear, rejection, avoidance, and discrimination
Stigma p. 12
A cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivates fear, rejection, avoidance, and discrimination
against people with mental illnesses.
Definitions of abnormal child behaviour must take into account the child’s competence – the
ability to successfully adapt in the environment Developmental competence is reflected in the child’s ability to use internal and external resources
to achieve a successful adaptation
o But what is successful?
Varies across cultures
Some children face greater obstacles than others
Judgements of deviancy also require knowledge of child’s performance relative to same-age peers
How do we know if a child is doing well?
o What should the expectations of professionals and parents be?
Use developmental tasks
Include broad domains of competence such as conduct and academic
o Transition to different levels of school
o Getting along with peers
o Attachment to caregivers
Conduct is a fundamental domain, as well as the self-domain
Competence p. 12
The ability to adapt to one’s environment. Children’s competence involves their performance relative to
their same-age peers as well as their individual course of development.
Developmental Tasks p. 13
Tests used to assess infants and young children that are generally carried out for the purposes of
screening, diagnosis, and evaluation of early development.
Another important aspect is the likelihood a concern in early childhood will lead to problems later