Interpretation and expectation in childhood anxiety disorders: Age effects and social specificity.


Theory and treatment for childhood anxiety disorders typically implicates children’s negative cognitions, yet little is known about the characteristics of thinking styles of clinically anxious children. In particular, it is unclear whether differences in thinking styles between children with anxiety disorders and non-anxious children vary as a function of child age, whether particular cognitive distortions are associated with childhood anxiety disorders at different child ages, and whether cognitive content is disorder-specific. The current study addressed these questions among 120 7-12 year old children (53% female) who met diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, other anxiety disorder, or who were not currently anxious. Contrary to expectations, threat interpretation was not inflated amongst anxious compared to nonanxious children at any age, although older (10-12 year old) anxious children did differ from non-anxious children on measures of perceived coping. The notion of cognitive-content specificity was not supported across the age-range. The findings challenge current treatment models of childhood anxiety, and suggest that a focus on changing anxious children’s cognitions is not warranted in mid-childhood, and in late childhood cognitive approaches may be better focused on promoting children’s perceptions of control rather than challenging threat interpretations.