The possible mechanisms involved in continuities and discontinuities in psychopathology between childhood and adult life are considered in relation to the findings from systematic, prospective, long-term longitudinal studies. Findings on schizophrenia, neurodevelopmental disorders, emotional disturbances, antisocial behaviour and substance abuse are used as conditions illustrating the key issues. The overarching themes are then discussed in relation to heterotypic continuity and psychopathologic progression, early age at onset and a range of possible mediating mechanisms – including genetic mediation, ‘kindling’ effects, environmental influences, coping mechanisms and cognitive processing of experiences. Some of the key research challenges that remain concern the testing of competing hypotheses on mediating processes, the changes involved in adolescence, the transition from prodromal phase to overt schizophrenia and the emergence of adolescent-limited antisocial behaviour. Greater use needs to be made of genetic research strategies and of the testing of possible cognitive processing mediation effects.