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Normal Versus Abnormal: Not So Black and White

normal vs abnormalNot so long ago, we finished writing Child Psychology and Development For Dummies. We enjoyed writing it and helping parents, teachers, and childcare providers understand how children develop and what makes them tick.

Even though we had separate sections on normal and abnormal development (as most such books do), it occurred to us that this distinction is not as clear-cut as you might think.

That’s for two major reasons:

  1. Abnormal really isn’t particularly abnormal at all. In other words, people typically develop the problems they have for very understandable reasons. Generally speaking, kids evolve into having anxiety “disorders” because they have experienced either an unusually scary series of events in their lives, one or more traumas, or inconsistent parenting or discipline. Sure, sometimes genes make a contribution as well. But even genes that incline kids toward anxiousness sometimes have adaptive value. Thus, a society that comes under unexpected attack or assault can usually profit from having some anxious members who are unusually hypervigilant and constantly on alert for danger. They serve as essential sentinels at such times.

    Similarly, kids usually become depressed when people and events create a sad, foreboding atmosphere to grow up in. And kids typically misbehave when parents, peers, teachers, and/or families either inadvertently encourage such behavior or fail to provide consistent limits and structure. Again, when genes contribute to the picture, some evolutionary psychologists believe these genes may also have advantages under certain circumstances.

  2. Normal is hardly normal. Anyone who cares about children will tell you that they want the kids under their care to be happy, healthy, and “normal.” Nothing wrong with those sentiments. But just exactly what is normal? Does anyone truly traverse an entire childhood while encountering neither a bump nor a pothole along the way? Look at the lives of most adults. Forget for a moment the huge percentage of folks that suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder at one time or another in their lives. Consider how many people have significant struggles over weight, divorces, traumas, tragedies, serious losses, troubles in school or on the job, money worries, relationship problems, and more. Everyone struggles; everyone grieves; everyone suffers from time to time. Perhaps what we often think of as normal isn’t so normal.

Why is this discussion important? I think it’s because humans often chastise themselves for having problems or having kids with problems. Getting down on yourself doesn’t really help much. Get out of the blame game and start looking for solutions or better ways to care for yourself and your kids. Stop expecting perfection and accept that you’re human.

Photo by Nadia Hatoum, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Normal Versus Abnormal: Not So Black and White

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. He is also a member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University. He specializes in the treatment of adolescents and adults with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anger, depression, and personality disorders. Dr. Elliott is coauthor of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Why Can't I Get What I Want?, Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?, and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. His website is:

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APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2011). Normal Versus Abnormal: Not So Black and White. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 27 Jun 2011
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