Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development

pp 982-982


  • Tasha R. HoweAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, Humboldt State University


Developmental outcomes; Developmental pathways; Developmental trajectories


The concept that people can experience the same life events or have similar histories yet their developmental outcomes can vary widely.


Multifinality literally means “many ends.” This refers to people having similar histories (e.g., child sexual abuse, death of a parent, or a secure attachment history) yet their developmental outcomes can vary widely. For example, two children who were sexually abused could have very different outcomes despite extremely similar early experiences. One child might be well-adjusted yet another child might develop clinical depression. This concept is important because it encourages clinicians and researchers to examine entire developmental histories instead of only looking at symptom profiles. The field of developmental psychopathology (DP) brought this idea to light in its conceptualization of mental health and illness in children [1]. Researchers from the DP perspective de-emphasize a categorical diagnostic approach such as the traditional use of the DSM-IV. The traditional categorical clinical approach using the DSM-IV would require the child to have a certain number of depressive symptoms with a clear cut-off point for clinical relevance before treatment was warranted. Moreover, the symptoms must be present for a required length of time, in order for a child to be diagnosed with a “disorder” like depression. Using a DP approach, however, attention is focused on normal developmental tasks, such as the status of the child’s attachments to caregivers, emotional regulatory abilities, and peer relations. If the child has failed to accomplish these normal developmental skills, prevention efforts might be implemented before a child’s sad mood had the chance to develop into a diagnosable disorder. The changeability of symptomatology in children is emphasized from this perspective, and caution is directed at assuming that similar histories or profiles will inevitably result in similar symptoms or disorders later on. Thus, the concept of multifinality allows us to examine individual children‘s developmental trajectories in order to improve their developmental skills, rather than making generalized assumptions about how a certain type of child might “end up” [2].

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