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Interpretation Bias and Anxiety in Childhood: Stability, Specificity and Longitudinal Associations

  • Cathy Creswell (a1) and Thomas G. O'Connor (a2)

Background: Biases in the interpretation of ambiguous material are central to cognitive models of anxiety; however, understanding of the association between interpretation and anxiety in childhood is limited. To address this, a prospective investigation of the stability and specificity of anxious cognitions and anxiety and the relationship between these factors was conducted. Method: Sixty-five children (10–11 years) from a community sample completed measures of self-reported anxiety, depression, and conduct problems, and responded to ambiguous stories at three time points over one-year. Results: Individual differences in biases in interpretation of ambiguity (specifically “anticipated distress” and “threat interpretation”) were stable over time. Furthermore, anticipated distress and threat interpretation were specifically associated with anxiety symptoms. Distress anticipation predicted change in anxiety symptoms over time. In contrast, anxiety scores predicted change in threat interpretation over time. Conclusions: The results suggest that different cognitive constructs may show different longitudinal links with anxiety. These preliminary findings extend research and theory on anxious cognitions and their link with anxiety in children, and suggest that these cognitive processes may be valuable targets for assessment and intervention.

Corresponding author
Reprint requests to Cathy Creswell, Clinical Research Fellow, Winnicott Research Unit, School of Psychology, University of Reading, 3 Earley Gate, Whiteknights, PO Box 218, Reading RG6 6AL, UK. E-mail:
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