Obsessive-Compulsive Symptomatology in Community Youth: Typical Development or a Red Flag for Psychopathology?

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2019 Feb;58(2):277-286.e4. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2018.06.038. Epub 2018 Nov 24.


Objective: Obsessive-compulsive symptoms (OCS) are common throughout development and often considered developmentally appropriate. We evaluated the prevalence and phenotypic heterogeneity of self-reported OCS in a large community youth sample not ascertained for seeking mental-health help. We aimed to identify patterns in OCS that are associated with serious psychopathology and may thus represent a "red flag" that merits psychiatric evaluation.

Method: Data were analyzed from youth from the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort (N = 7,054, aged 11-21 years, 54% female). Participants underwent structured psychiatric interviews, including screening for OCS (8 obsessions, 8 compulsions, and hoarding) and other major psychopathology domains. Factor analysis was conducted to identify clustering of OCS presentation. Regression models were used to investigate association of OCS with threshold lifetime diagnoses of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depressive episode, psychosis, and suicide ideation.

Results: OCS were common in non-mental health-seeking individuals (38.2%), although only 3% met threshold OCD criteria. OCS were more common in female participants and postpuberty. Factor analyses resulted in 4 factors: F1 - Bad Thoughts; F2 - Repeating/Checking; F3 - Symmetry; F4 - Cleaning/Contamination; and Hoarding as a separate item. All OCS were associated with higher rates of OCD, depression, psychosis, and suicide ideation. However, endorsement of F1 symptoms, prevalent in more than 20% of the sample, showed the most substantial associations with major psychiatric conditions.

Conclusion: OCS are common in community youth. Although for most youths OCS symptoms may be benign, some patterns of OCS are associated with major psychiatric conditions. These findings may help to identify youth at risk for serious psychopathology.

Keywords: developmental psychopathology; factor analysis; obsessive-compulsive.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Comorbidity
  • Depression / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / epidemiology*
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / psychology*
  • Philadelphia / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Psychopathology
  • Psychotic Disorders / epidemiology
  • Self Report
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Suicidal Ideation
  • Young Adult