OBJECTIVE--To investigate the social adjustment in childhood of people who as adults have psychiatric disorders. DESIGN--Subjects in a prospectively followed up cohort (the national child development study) who had been admitted as adults to psychiatric hospitals were compared with the rest of the cohort on ratings of social behaviour made by teachers at the ages of 7 and 11 years. SUBJECTS--40 adult patients with schizophrenic illnesses, 35 with affective psychoses, and 79 with neurotic illness who had been admitted for psychiatric reasons by the age of 28. 1914 randomly selected members of the cohort who had never been admitted for psychiatric treatment. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Overall scores and scores for overreaction (externalising behaviour) and underreaction (internalising behaviour) with the Bristol social adjustment guide at ages 7 and 11. RESULTS--At the age of 7 children who developed schizophrenia were rated by their teachers as manifesting more social maladjustment than controls (overall score 4.3 (SD 2.4) v 3.1 (2.0); P < 0.01). This was more apparent in the boys (5 (2.6)) than the girls (3.4 (1.8)) and related to overreactive rather than underreactive behaviour. At both ages prepsychotic (affective) children differed little from normal controls. By the age of 11 preneurotic children, particularly the girls, had an increased rating of maladjustment (including overreactions and underreactions). CONCLUSION--Abnormalities of social adjustment are detectable in childhood in some people who develop psychotic illness. Sex and the rate of development of different components of the capacity for social interaction are important determinants of the risk of psychosis and other psychiatric disorders in adulthood.