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J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2008 Mar;39(1):73-86. Epub 2007 Jan 17.

Cognitive development and the interpretation of anxiety-related physical symptoms in 4-13-year-old non-clinical children.

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Department of Medical, Clinical, and Experimental Psychology, Maastricht University, The Netherlands.


The present study examined developmental patterns in children's interpretation of anxiety-related physical symptoms and emotional reasoning (i.e., the tendency to infer danger on the basis of physical response information). A sample of 171 children aged between 4 and 13 years were interviewed after listening to a number of vignettes in which the presence and absence of physical symptoms was systematically varied. Results revealed the expected developmental pattern for anxiety-related interpretations of physical symptoms. More precisely, from age 7, children were increasingly capable of linking physical symptoms to the emotion of anxiety. Furthermore, support was obtained for an emotional reasoning effect. That is, children rated vignettes with physical symptoms as more dangerous than vignettes without such symptoms. While the emotional reasoning effect was present in children of all ages, this phenomenon was more salient among older children. Finally, cognitive development as measured by Piagetian conservation tasks appeared to influence children's anxiety-related interpretations of physical symptoms and emotional reasoning. Altogether, these findings are relevant for researchers who are interested in "physical symptoms-based" theories of childhood anxiety.

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