Clinical Vignette – The Holistic Person-Context Interaction Theory

Assignment – Vignette 1 – Developmental Psychology: Select a developmental theory that we have not addressed thus far and apply it to one (1) family member in the below Vignette. Discuss how the developmental theory of your choosing might facilitate an understanding of the family member that you selected. What developmental questions would you want to consider? Be sure to clearly state the developmental theory used and the main theoretical ideas or tenets. Be sure to include how a humanistic perspective fits (or does not fit) with your conceptualization. Remember, the purpose is to explore how developmental theory can inform clinical work; demonstrating theoretical comprehension and application in relation to humanistic psychology. This is not an exercise in developing therapeutic strategies or interventions; instead, keep your focus on how the theory contributes to a better understanding of the challenges faced by the selected family member.

Case illustration: Mary Kaye (51) and Tracie Jean(42) have been in a committed lesbian relationship for 5 years. Mary divorced 6 years ago after realizing she was lesbian; she has 2 adult children. Tracie has always recognized that she was lesbian; she has always wanted children. Both are career women; Mary has a successful banking career and Tracie is a high school teacher and coach. This Caucasian couple lives in an all white suburban neighborhood and approximately 1 year ago they adopted 2 African American girls; Tasha (8) and Niesha (6).

The girls grew up in inner city and have been in and out of foster care both with other family members and strangers for nearly 4 years before being adopted. Their history is quite painful. The biological mother was addicted to heroin and the father incarcerated for life. Tasha has been sexually abused on at least 3 known occasions, the last was while in the care of her maternal grandmother, she was assaulted by a male cousin (16). It is not clear if Niesha has been abused, though it is suspected.

The adopted parents are seeking therapy for Tasha because of increased acting out at school (fighting, grades falling, not following directions) and home (lying, stealing insignificant things, not following directions). The couple does not have concerns about Niesha’s behavior. Tasha has begun individual sessions with you and she presents quite pleasant and age-appropriate but you also suspect a lot of sadness. Mary is quite concerned about Tasha’s behavior and why she does not do better. Mary tends to be the disciplinarian but you have some concerns about what seems to be extreme tactics, i.e. she will take something of Tasha’s without her knowing in order for her to ‘know what it feels like when your things are stolen’. Tracie is concerned as well but feels at a lost because of the girls’ horrific beginnings. Both parents feel that since the girls are in a better school and home, they should be doing better.

Though reluctant, Mary and Tracie will consider family therapy as well and you are considering parental couples’ work to address parenting skills and expectations.

Clinical Vignette

Magnusson’s Holistic Person-Context Interaction Theory is used in this paper to provide a better understanding of the various challenges faced by Tasha, the adopted girl. Tasha is eight years old and was adopted a year ago, along with a girl two years younger, by a Caucasian lesbian couple named Mary and Tracie, as described in the vignette for this exercise. Tasha has a troubled past, having been in and out of foster care from the age of three to seven. Her birth mother is a heroin addict, and her father is serving a life sentence in prison. Tasha was also sexually abused at least three times, the most recent incident being by a sixteen-year-old cousin.

The following is the primary developmental question addressed in this paper: What effect has developmental stress, such as not having a mother to act as a secure base and being exposed to a variety of unsafe environments, had on Tasha? To narrow the scope of the study, this paper will focus on Tasha’s current behavior in relation to her past, rather than the stressors she experiences now, such as facing three types of exclusion: she was adopted, she has a different skin color, and her parents are homosexual, all of which can add to her stress. However, before we attempt to understand Tasha’s situation from a developmental standpoint, let us first examine Magnusson’s perspective on individual development.

The Holistic Person-Context Interaction Theory

David Magnusson was a Swedish psychologist who for a brief period worked as a teacher and school psychologist (Buttimer, 2013). From these experiences, he gained an understanding of developmental processes. He describes in an interview that he “only met young unique individuals” (Buttimer, 2013, 13:50) and needed to understand each child and adolescent, as well as their background and home circumstances, in order to better comprehend why they behaved the way they did.

Magnusson and Stattin (2007) describe how people are constantly confronted with new challenges, opportunities, and demands. The integrity of the organism and its internal regulatory balance must be preserved in these ever-changing and sometimes difficult situations. When a person adapts to and manages different situations, their psychobiological and behavioral abilities are capable of interacting with their environment successfully, a process that occurs both consciously and subconsciously. In such cases, there is a complex and dynamic interaction between an individual’s internal world, which includes their mental, biological, and behavioral capacities, and the external world, which includes a variety of social, cultural, and environmental factors. According to Magnusson and Stattin, human functioning is dependent on both the person and the environment, which is why it is critical to understand how these two factors interact. Magnusson (1999) also emphasizes the significance of understanding psychological processes in relation to neurobiological factors. He explains that the perceived stress level of the brain and nervous system influences how a behavior manifests in a given situation. Damasio (2003) and LeDoux (1996) discovered that when the amygdala is “hijacked” by too much stress, cognitions and behaviors differ from when the brain and nervous system are in a state of equilibrium, which we will now examine in relation to Tasha’s situation.

Tasha’s Behavior from Psychobiological Perspective

To better understand Tasha’s current behaviors in terms of increased acting out at school, such as fighting, receiving lower grades, and failing to follow directions, and at home, such as lying, stealing, and failing to follow directions, let us employ Magnusson’s holistic-interactionistic framework, with a particular emphasis on the interaction of psychobiological, behavioral, and social factors. To begin, Tasha has most likely grown up in circumstances that have compelled her nervous system to activate the stress response, which includes the flight, fight, or freeze mechanisms, causing her to be vigilant and less trusting of those around her.  Some examples of severe stress on Tasha’s brain and nervous system include her mother’s heroin addiction and the absence of her father, making it difficult for Tasha to use her parents as a secure base from which to explore the world. Furthermore, Tasha’s constant switching between foster care, and on top of that being sexually abused, most likely makes the world a dangerous and unsafe place for her, as opposed to someone who grows up in a safe and loving environment where the social engagement system is active most of the time, and thus perceives the world as a safe and loving place where exploration is safe (Porges, 2011).

Tasha’s latent active stress response causes her nervous system to produce more negative emotions, which in turn negatively affects her behavior (Damasio, 2003; LeDoux, 1996). This most likely creates a negative behavioral loop in which Tasha’s problematic behavior negatively affects those around her, particularly her parents’, teachers’, and classmates’ behavior toward her. In order for Tasha to change her behavior, her nervous system needs to be down-regulated so that her brain can perceive the world as a safer place (LeDoux, 1996; Magnusson, 1999). Instead of negative emotions such as frustration, irritation, and anger, which are primarily related to the fight mechanism, with a down-regulated nervous system she could more easily access emotions such as love, happiness, and gratitude, which are more related to the social engagement system (Porges, 2011). In turn, Tasha’s positive emotions and behaviors would improve her relationships with those around her and, in the best-case scenario, would initiate a positive behavioral loop that would result in Tasha having more fulfilling relationships with those around her. Tasha’s painful past, in summary, results in her inability to successfully interact with her environment due to her limited mental, biological, and behavioral abilities. Adaptation to a new situation, according to Magnusson and Stattin (2007), cannot occur until a person’s psychobiological and behavioral abilities can interact with existing environmental conditions, with the first step being a balanced brain and nervous system.

A Humanistic Perspective of Magnusson’s Theory on Tasha’s Situation

Humanistic psychology aims to address the “full range of human experience, not just the aspects that are most readily measurable and under environmental control” (Crain, 2010, p. 388). By examining the whole person, rather than just the dysfunctional parts, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchy of needs model, which consists of various levels of needs that must be met in order for an individual to function optimally and live a happy and fulfilled life (Crain, 2010). Looking at Tasha’s situation through a humanistic lens, specifically Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is clear that most of Tasha’s basic needs were not met, both in her past and in relation to her current situation. Tasha’s physiological needs, as well as her need for safety and security, were not met adequately in her life, resulting in her nervous system being on high alert and in an active stress response. The importance of meeting the first two basic needs, as well as the other needs, is recognized in Magnusson’s holistic-interactionistic framework, which focuses on the whole person. With regard to the third hierarchical need, which relates to love and belonging, it is most likely easier for Tasha to fulfill this need when her nervous system has down-regulated to the social engagement system. When Tasha’s first two needs are met and she feels more secure within herself, she is better able to connect with those around her, which will most likely make it easier for her new parents to give her the love they probably are longing to give her. Hopefully, with enough time and the proper assistance and healing, Tasha will be able to meet the other hierarchical needs, such as developing her confidence and self-esteem.


Buttimer, A. (2013, July 2). Founding Visions Interview with Prof David Magnusson [Video]. YouTube.

Crain, W. (2010). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. (6th ed.). Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain. Hartcourt.

LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpin- ning of emotional life. Simon and Shuster.

Magnusson, & Stattin, H. (2007). The Person in Context: A Holistic‐Interactionistic Approach[Note 1. This chapter is a revised version of D. Magnusson …]. In Handbook of Child Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Magnusson, D. (1999). Individual Development: Toward a Developmental Science. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 143(1), 86–96.

Porges, S. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. Norton & Company.



No Comments

Post a Comment