The study of developmental psychopathology is a multidisciplinary approach for studying factors that contribute or impede mental health. These factors can be internal (for example genes) or external (environment) and are conceptualized not as directly influencing mental health, but as building vulnerabilities or enhance adaptation. It is assumed these factors differ in their mechanics according to age. Data about the risk factors and protective factors is recorded by the means of longitudinal studies and then analyzed with their regard to adaptive versus maladaptive developmental outcome. Psychopathology is expected to be found in individuals that are exposed to many risk factors during their development, without access to protective factors that can counteract maladaptive development.
Most studies conducted within the field of psychopathology employ a framework of several factors that spread through multiple levels (macro, exo, micro, intogenetic) from society to the individual. Normal development is studied next to pathological development in order to better understand the processes at hand and their interaction with each other.
Research so far has stressed the influence of the microsystem (family, school and work) for the development of the child. Especially factors related to the quality of parenting have shown to exert much influence on the individual development as either source of or buffer against stress. A well functioning microsystem might be the cause why some children who grow up under bad conditions never develop psychopathology and why children who seem to have perfect premises for a good development do develop psychopathology.
Early inadequate treatment in parent-child interactions might play an important role in maladaptive developmental path, as maltreated children show difficulties in dealing with emotional stimuli. Research supports a sensitization model that leads to stronger emotional reactions with repeated exposure. Biological effects of this developmental path might be connected to altered activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical-system.
As the toddler grows affect regulation is transferred from the parents to the child. If the emotional system is not able to handle the stress of this transition the child will regard internal affective information as a threat and start to avoid this information. This will impair further development as affect regulation is regarded to be a central process in successfully achieve later developmental stages.
This is especially evident when in kindergarten or primary school peers start to become more important as social interaction partners. Maladaptive development in earlier stages often leads to aggression and/or social withdrawal. Maladaptive social interaction not only keep others from becoming important protective factors, it can also be a source of tremendous stress.
Studying extreme maladaptive development might enable us to understand developmental processes that usually are too subtle and gradual to be observed by the current methodology.
While most social sciences try to reduce reality to a few variables for any given hypothesis, developmental psychopathology often deals with massive amount of data to get as close to reality as possible. New methodological analysis such as structural equation modeling are often used to identify effects that go beyond simple cause and effect relations between to factors, as bidirectional influences between the child and his environment are considered to be an important process.