Obsessive-compulsive disorder across developmental trajectory: Cognitive processing of threat in children, adolescents and adults


Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Lara Farrell, School of Psychology, University of Queenland, PO Box 5699, West End, Brisbane, QLD, 4101, Australia (e-mail: info@pathwayshrc.com.au).


Background . While the cognitive theory of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the most widely accepted accounts of the maintenance of the disorder in adults, no study to date has systematically evaluated the theory across children, adolescence and adults with OCD.

Method . This paper investigated developmental differences in the cognitive processing of threat in a sample of children, adolescents and adults with OCD. Using an idiographic assessment approach, as well as self-report questionnaires, this study evaluated cognitive appraisals of responsibility, probability, severity, thought-action fusion (TAF), thought-suppression, self-doubt and cognitive control. It was hypothesised that there would be age related differences in reported responsibility for harm, probability of harm, severity of harm, thought suppression, TAF, self-doubt and cognitive control.

Results . Results of this study demonstrated that children with OCD reported experiencing fewer intrusive thoughts, which were less distressing and less uncontrollable than those experienced by adolescents and adults with OCD. Furthermore, responsibility attitudes, probability biases and thought suppression strategies were higher in adolescents and adults with OCD. Cognitive processes of TAF, perceived severity of harm, self-doubt and cognitive control were found to be comparable across age groups.

Conclusions . These results suggest that the current cognitive theory of OCD needs to address developmental differences in the cognitive processing of threat. Furthermore, for a developmentally sensitive theory of OCD, further investigation is warranted into other possible age related maintenance factors. Implications of this investigation and directions for future research are discussed.