The term non-normative life events describe significant, unexpected and unpredictable events, for a particular individual, which do not follow the predictable developmental pattern of life-cycle.
Non-normative life events are those that occur unexpectedly, such as natural disasters, loss of a family member and war. Even in cases that death or illness, in specific ages, are statistically considered normative, they are actually non-normative. They are still unexpected and undesired events, associated with severe effects . Non-normative events may be comprised of both negative and positive events, such as death of a beloved person or winning in a lottery. However, in both cases, they are unexpected and slightly related to chronological age .
Life-span developmentalists assert that individual development is deeply affected by age-graded, history-graded and non-normative factors. Features, such as timing, duration order, spacing and patterns of these events may modify the course of individual development. However, out of the three groups of factors influencing individual development (age-graded, history-graded and non-normative) non-normative events are the most unpredictable and can occur at any point of life span. Some of them may result in both permanent and long-lasting effects or in a temporary deviation from what is considered normative .
Even though today there is a debate going on about non-normative events, this is not something new. Non-normative events have occurred across the span of different historical periods, due to historical events, such as the French Revolution, Pre-Industrial Period and the period of Great Depression. These historical events resulted in unexpected life changes to a big number of people, such as diseases, early death and poverty .
Relevance to Childhood Development
Because non-normative events are unexpected, those who are affected have no opportunity to prepare themselves for the event. Since this kind of events usually occur only to a few people, they do not receive the appropriate support by others. People often have little experience of dealing with the specific non-normative event, they do not actually know how to respond, and therefore less community support resources are available . Moreover, individuals experiencing non-normative life events are at risk of affecting their interpersonal relationships. This occurs because, when a new stressor evolves into people’s life, prior strains are intensified, people feel the pressure of competing demands and they have limited available resources to deal with these excessive demands .
In the case of non-normative events, experienced in childhood, there is compelling evidence that they could cause serious long-term implications, especially when adverse life experiences are involved . The childhood exposure to traumatic life events is strongly associated with undesirable patterns of physical and mental health outcomes.
As individuals grow older, the influence of non-normative events increases. Researchers explain that this occurs because, with increasing age, people might face losses over which they have no control and individuals often develop a helpless outlook. At the same time, as each individual has experienced a unique set of experiences, chronological age weakens as a predictor of developmental differences in adulthood . In particular, recurrent traumatic events have been reported to reduce person’s coping resources in later life and increase vulnerability to psychological and psychiatric disorders .
Research evidence reveals that, in comparison to half-century ago, people in industrialized Western Societies are today facing an increasing number of non-normative conversions and events, such as early retirement, divorce and separation. Consequently, successful development often depends on people’s ability to adapt to both normative but to non-normative changes, as well, through self-regulatory processes .
The exposure to non-normative life events, such as a divorce, requires high levels of social readjustment and efforts and it is positively related to high levels of illness rates. Furthermore, research studies have revealed that people facing unexpected and critical life events are at risk of negative development. For these reasons, researchers underline the importance of self-regulation for managing non-normative life events and changes and they highlight the significance of successful adaptation to unexpected changes in life. External stimuli are not the only factors influencing behavior but individuals’ responses represent a different influential source for behavior and development. By the processes of self-regulation, in both normative and non-normative events, basic processes, such as goal selection, pursuit and disengagement are involved. In this way people become able to select appropriate goals that can be attained by effort and at the same time be able to restructure goals in cases in which non-normative events have emerged and goals have become unattainable. Therefore, in order for the adaptation, due to non-normative life changes, to be successfully managed, the development of self-regulatory skills is needed .
Within a more general framework of a family therapy perspective, an effective intervention for families that experience non-normative events needs to anticipate a deep understanding of the family processes and all the complexities involved, at different stages of the life cycle.