Psychological Theories and Processes Explaining the Relationship Between Childhood Risk Factors and Adult Outcome



The essence and significance of human development from infancy to adulthood cannot be overstated. There are various stages that human beings need to go through from infancy to adulthood as a consequence of ensuring healthy development. Each stage of development is often met with challenges or mastering of certain issues. Psychological theories have been used to understand the development of humans through the different stages.  The psychological theories are normally used to provide a basis for understanding the human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Humans have always been recognized to have strong relationships and connections between the early years and adult life. The underlying processes explaining this relationship have been under investigation for many years. Various psychological theories have tried describing the relationship between childhood factors and the associated adult outcomes.

Attachment Theory

According to the attachment theory, infants learn to interact with attachment objects in their early relationships. As a result, the infants build up sets of expectations concerning other people about themselves. Bowlby (1988) notes that the infants develop an internal working model (IWM) based on their first experiences. The model is an essential component which helps them to approach new experiences with prior ideas on how they can be able to cope with the situations at hand. According to Bowlby (1988), the IWM is made of three components; a model of self, ‘of the other’ and a relationship model between the two elements. Take for example a case of two infants. The child with a devoted father as a primary carer who responds to the infant’s distress and is always with the infant when she is awake is likely to develop an IWM in which the self-element has the capability of calling for comfort whenever necessary. It is also capable of regarding itself as deserving of attention. In the same context, the other element will serve as an expectation that comfort would be provided whenever needed and the other will be concerned about the state of the infant. Additionally, the relationship part of the model will comprise expectations regarding the resolution of crises in a satisfactory manner with mutual communication

Bowlby (1988) argues that the infant with a quite depressed carer who spends most of his time in a depressed state and is of general low modes is likely to develop an IWM with an ambivalent model of the self-element. For instance, the infant is likely to be alone at most times since the carer is emotionally unavailable. As a result, the carer might roughly handle the infant in response to the infant’s distress. In this regard, the child’s ambivalent model would be characterized by aspects like sometimes worth of receiving attention, comfort, and at times expected to give self-comfort when distressed (Bowlby 1988). In this model, the ‘of the other’ element is likely to be confused between availability, rejection, and ignorance of the aspects. Consequently, the relationship model would have many expectations. As a result, the infant will construct an IWM with less ability to generate accurate predictions whenever cases of distress arise.  

The attachment theory is also premised on the basis that IWMs develop from oft-repeated experiences of specific types in the early encounters between the carers and the infants. The IWMs constructed during this period, then persist into childhood and even adulthood. In this model, the expectations regarding ‘self,’ ‘of other,’ and ‘relationships’ are passed on into subsequent relationships with other people providing a basis of making judgments out of the new encounters.

Bowlby (1988) considered that early attachment insecurity as a risk factor increasing the probability of developing psychopathology, a maladaptation that is associated with later difficulties. In order to effect change, there needs to be a greater understanding of the psychopathological causes (Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, and Juffer 2003: 196). Furthermore, it is also important to recognize that the maladaptation is associated with various risk factors which can either be family-related, parent-specific, or child-specific. Multiple researchers have emphasized the importance of identifying the children at risk of developing psychopathology later in their development. Findings of studies conducted by Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, and Juffer (2003: 197) investigating the relationship between infant attachment and the development of subsequent behavior problems indicate that insecure children have a higher likelihood of developing behavioral problems in their early school life as compared to secure children. According to the findings, children in environments with high social risks showing attachment insecurity have a higher likelihood of experiencing symptoms associated with depression, general maladjustment, and aggression than the children in secure settings. The results link externalizing behavioral problems like increased hostility and aggression to early attachment insecurity. The situation is more pronounced in boys that have experienced stressful events in their lifetime. For example, a study conducted by Belsky and Fearon (2002: 363) identified a significant relationship between behavioral problems among 6-year-old children and insecure environment. However, the results showed that the situation was only noted among the boys.

 Other researchers conducted studies to address the development of disruptive behavioral problems during the early stages of life. It comprised of children aged between 3 and 6 years that were diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) compared with typically developing children. The results did not show differences in behavioral problems between the different classifications of children that were used. However, they showed emerging trends whereby controlling children were found to be less problematic than the avoidant and secure children (Belsky and Fearon 2002: 367). Most of the current findings broadly support the argument that attachment insecurity is one of the crucial factors that explain the development of psychopathology in childhood and adulthood. On the face value, attachment insecurity cannot be considered a form of psychopathology because it only serves the function of setting a trajectory for other risk factors that might cause maladjustment.

Other studies show that there is a relationship between peer relationships and attachment in middle childhood. In middle childhood, children have increased desires to form relationships and bonds with people in their cycles (Belsky and Fearon 2002: 370). The motivations of the children to explore the surrounding environment away from the figures of attachment grow as they begin to seek independence. The exploration is facilitated by the sense of knowledge and security which is premised on the basis that should a need arise; the attachment figures can be used to provide a secure base (Bowlby 1988). The attachment theory identifies that attachment security is fundamental in shaping the relationship of children with their peers. Furthermore, it helps to foster their negotiation power, competence, and engagement. 

Constructivist Theory

Jean Piaget sought to explain the phenomenon of mental representation in infants. Piaget disregarded the idea that children are just passive recipients of learned experiences. Like behaviorists, he believed that children are born without the ability of representation. As a consequence, Piaget (1954) theorized that the children could develop this ability since they are active participants. According to Piaget, children are born with motivations to interact with the environment (world) physically, construct their understanding about it, and internalize the interactions into increasingly abstract and complex representations. Piaget (1954) invented a theory to explain the development of the children’s thinking from birth to adolescence. He observed that children make systematic errors before developing the capability of performing tasks that involve thinking correctly, which can be able to give insights into what might be going on inside the mind of the children. In one experiment with his daughter, he noted that young infants failed to locate ‘things’ that had gone out of sight (Piaget 1954). He concluded that infants did not have the understanding of ‘object permanence.’ For adults, objects continue existing even in situations when they appear to have gone out of sight. On the other, for the infants, things that have gone out of sight are considered to be literally out of mind.

Piaget (1954) argued that young infants do not have the capability of forming mental representations. Baillargeon, Spelke, and Wasserman (1985: 200) indicate that children do not develop the ability until they are at least 18 months old. He further argues that the representation of a permanent enduring world among the infants develops through interaction with repeated experiences and observation of the effects. Denham et al. (2012: 670) indicated that infants possessed a set of innate capabilities which enabled them to interact actively with the world and construct representations. Piaget’s theory indicates that cognitive development takes place in systematic steps towards maturity. 

Piaget (1954) used the same concept to explain the children’s understanding of scientific concepts. He argued that changes in scientific thinking are based on the understanding of conservation between the different stages of concerns. According to Baker et al. (2011: 272), conservation regards the understanding that any quantity of matter will be similar despite the changes in the modes of presentation. According to Piaget (1954), this kind of understanding lacks in preoperational children. As a result, the children are likely to perform poorly on a variety of tasks regarding conservation, such as the conservation of mass, volume, and length. For example, in the bid to examine the conservation of volume, children might be presented with equal quantities of a particular liquid in identical flasks (Baker et al. 2011: 273). However, if the same quantity of liquid is transferred to a taller or a bigger flask, ‘non-conserver’ students would argue that the liquid has reduced in quantity. 

The development of lying behavior among the children in their middle childhood is associated with cognitive and social abilities which encompass the child’s theory of the mind, executive function, and moral understanding of truth-telling and lying (Bandura and Walters 1963). They indicate that the production of lies in children is related to some theory of mind. Moreover, it is suggested that child deception might be related to working memory and inhibitory control of a child. Inhibitory control is associated with suppression of interfering thoughts and actions (Baker et al. 274). On the other hand, the working memory is concerned with the temporal processing of information in the brain. When lying, the children must be able to suppress the information they would wish to conceal in order to report false information. As a result, to tell lies, children must be able to hold and balance conflicting alternatives. Bandura and Walters (1963) explain that lying amongst children can be justified by the temptation-resistance paradigm. According to this paradigm, the initial false denials were found to be related to first order beliefs, inhibitory control, and the ability of the children to maintain lies. For example, the ability to keep consistent stories under questioning was found to be related to the children’s second-order belief effectively suggesting that executive functioning and theory of the mind is essential in fostering lying. Fender and Crowley (2007: 194) found that the practice continued into adulthood. The ability of the children to maintain consistency in lying develops with age since their social and cognitive skills also mature with age.  

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Differential Emotions Theory

Izard (2009: 5) developed the theory to explain how humans develop emotions in their life stages. The DET is based on the premise that emotions have evolved because they have been used to enhance the chances of survival. For example, babies cry to seek the attention of their caregivers. According to Izard (2009: 7), the emotional feelings that people experience are as a result of neurobiological developments that have occurred over the years due to natural selection. As a consequence, the emotions are as a result of automatic activations of the brain by external events, and they usually occur to ensure survival. DET emphasizes on the fact that humans are not passive recipients of emotions. On the contrary, they have the capability of interpreting different feelings they experience and respond to them appropriately in different ways. Izard (2009: 8) regards the process as emotion utilization. He argues that an individual might draw upon their learned behaviors, cognitive skills, and past experiences to shape their reactions to an emotional feeling. For instance, based on previous interactions an individual may exhibit behaviors such as jumping when they experience a sense of happiness. As a result, the emotions are associated with a range of practices that have also adapted for survival purposes. Most babies smile in the bid to communicate a positive feeling which fosters social bonds with the caregivers.

Izard (2009: 9) maintains that the theory has interest and joy as the basic positive emotions which motivate development. In their early stages, it is fundamental that the infants take part in synchronized dyadic interactions with their caregivers which ensures that their needs are met. Interested infants explore their surroundings, and joyful infants elicit joy in their caregivers which enables them to receive attention and love. As a result, the infants can learn and survive. Izard (2009: 11) also identifies that DET has different negative emotions which comprise of fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. He argues that emotional feelings have undergone neurological evolution to organize physiology and serve adaptive functions, expressive, cognitive, and particular behavioral practices. For instance, newborn babies have innate emotion systems which enable them to signal their desires, distress, and needs to get the attention of their caregivers to ensure that their interests are considered (Freedman 1964: 173). 

Children growing up in environments with increased risk factors have a higher likelihood of developing long-term adverse effects in their life. For instance, children growing up in acute poverty exposed to physical or social violence, or those separated from their families through natural disasters or war have a higher risk of having poor developmental outcomes (Frank, and Stennett 2001: 78). Other factors might include insecure attachment to their parents or caregivers, parental alcoholism and ill health, and maternal post-natal depression. Most studies have not been able to identify the impacts of each risk factor on individual children and how they can be separated from the risk factors. For instance, children from poor backgrounds grapple with other problems like poor education and ill health. Additionally, the mothers are exposed to post-natal depression and other issues like experiencing ethnic minority and racism. Montgomery (2013: 56) indicates that the vulnerability of the children is as a result of a combinational of risk factors since they are cumulative and interactive. Also, the elements tend to reinforce each other. 

Psychologists indicate that the risk factors can be traced to recognizable patterns in early childhood. For example, experiencing stunted growth in early childhood due to malnutrition is related to poor health in adulthood. However, it is difficult to predict the impacts of the risks in different individuals (Montgomery 2013: 59). Despite having general developmental patterns, children have unique developmental profiles. As a result, children do not exhibit similar responses to similar events. For example, despite having similar upbringings, siblings can display different temperaments as they react to similar events in contrasting ways. On the other hand, children with similar personalities can respond differently to a stressful event in their middle childhood due to their differing experiences in early childhood. Mercer and Sams (2006: 510) argue that children from deprived backgrounds tend to do poorer than children from affluent backgrounds in cognitive language test. For example, children growing up in poverty have been found to be 18 months behind their peers in middle childhood concerning educational achievements. On top of that, more impoverished children have a higher likelihood of displaying internalizing and externalizing problems like depression and aggression (Bornstein and Bradley, 2012). Moreover, the children are likely to experience stigma while growing up.

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Social Learning Processes

The stimulus that surrounds children at infancy is specially constructed to appeal to a particular gender. A study conducted by Barrett (2000) showed that there is a deep entrenchment of ideas regarding gender-appropriate behavior in the Western culture. The culture defines what is expected of a child based on the way he is brought up. In this regard, children are not considered passive participants. They are used to show early resistances of infants to socially constructed roles (Banerjee 2005: 147). The dominant assumptions of the society regarding gender have profound impacts on shaping the identity of a child. The social learning process proposes that learning occurs through a process of conditioning, rewards, and punishments. According to Broidy et al. (2003: 226), rewarding and encouraging gender-consistent behavior and role-inconsistent activities associated with punishment foster the formation of masculine and feminine identities. Furthermore, researchers argue that children develop their gender identities by observing and developing their behaviors on other people (Clay and Barrett 2011: 30). This idea relates to the behaviorist theories which explain the causes of the actions by evaluating the kind of behaviors that can be measured through observation. Study findings indicate that punishment or rewards are critical in shaping gender-typed behavior.  

In middle childhood, children have developed the ability to identify themselves as members of a particular national group. Their sense of identity has different facets in that they have different feelings towards other ingroups and outgroup. Furthermore, they have stereotypical ideas and feelings regarding different national objects like traditions and symbols. Barrett (2011) found in-group favoritism among children that identified with a particular national identity. For example, many children were found to express higher levels of liking for the people that belonged to their national groups than for the people that belonged to other groups. Moreover, the adults and children were found to hold particular stereotypes about the traits and characteristics of persons from other salient national groups (Keller et al. 2004: 1750). Keller et al. (2004: 1751) indicated that adolescence is associated with a crisis of identity. According to Oates, Sheehy, and Wood (2005: 50), personality undergoes a series of stages as it develops across a lifespan. They believed the formation of an individual’s identity starts in early childhood and progresses throughout life. Oates, Sheehy, and Wood (2005: 52) further argued that the development of ego identity is based on interactions with other, which continually changes with the daily interactions, experiences, and communications.

The experiences of early childhood are fundamental in shaping adult outcomes. Childhood experiences are formed by the different kinds of risk factors infants are exposed to during their early development. For instance, the infants from affluent families are likely to have their need for attention and care provided adequately during their early life stages. As a result, the children have a higher probability of developing positive mental representations during their lifespan. On top of that, these kinds of children have a higher likelihood of forming gender identities early enough as they exposed to related gender-identity objects like toys and clothing. On the other hand, children from more deprived backgrounds have higher likelihoods of developing negative mental representations due to the increased risk factors in their early development. As a consequence, they are likely to have reduced achievements, increased aggression and depression characteristics, and ill health that could progress into adulthood. 


Various psychological theories have been used to describe the relationship between childhood factors and the associated adult outcomes. The environmental factors in the early lives of infants play a fundamental role in determining the characteristics of the child in the adult life. Most of the psychological theories that have tried explaining the phenomenon have identified that most of the characteristics of individuals in adult life can be traced to their childhood. As a result, most of these studies have shown that children coming from well-off families have positive developmental outcomes compared to those coming from low-income families.

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