Kent State psychologist leads NIH-funded study to identify children at risk for persistent distress after a traumatic injury
The way in which a parent responds to a child’s injury often impacts how upset the little one becomes.
A panicked parent often means a crying, hysterical child. A calm kiss on the boo-boo and a quick return to regular business, though, and the child is likely to forget about the incident.
This age-old bit of parenting wisdom is one component of a new study by a Kent State University researcher into predictors of long-term post-traumatic stress in children.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded a three-year, $460,000 grant to Dr. Douglas Delahanty, Professor of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Associate Vice President for Research, for his project, “Emotion Processing Deficits and Risk for Impairment in Child Injury Victims.”
“The work we do is primarily trying to identify what children and families will have a harder time after a traumatic event,” Dr. Delahanty said. “A small but significant percentage will develop persistent psychological symptoms that can impact their functioning for a long time. The trick is how to identify that small group and intervene with them.”
Several factors — including, age, gender, and medical history — determine how a child processes a trauma and what treatments may be most effective at preventing long-term psychological distress.
Given that only a minority of patients develop persistent problems, Delahanty said, intervening with all patients is time consuming and costly, especially since most will recover on their own.
The research team consists of Dr. Delahanty and Drs. Karin Coifman and Jeff Ciesla (both associate professors of psychological sciences at KSU) as well as Drs. Sarah Ostrowski-Delahanty and Norman Christopher from Akron Children’s Hospital. The primary focus is to test two new factors thought to increase risk for persistent distress in child injury victims: high threat sensitivity — how likely one is to perceive danger in a situation, and low inhibitory control — the inability to assess and rationalize their sensitivity to perceived threats.
“What we’ve also seen, though, is that it doesn’t only matter what the kids are doing,” Dr. Delahanty said. “Parental reactions to a child’s injury have a large impact on the child’s recovery. Parental post-traumatic distress can have a large impact on a child’s functioning after a serious injury.”
The study will look at this dynamic across age, gender, and relationships with parents. “A mother’s relationship with her 15-year-old daughter, for example, may influence outcomes in a quite different manner than a father’s relationship with his 8-year-old son,” Dr. Delahanty said.
Delahanty said a major goal of the project was to increase the number of dads included in the study. “Seventy percent of the time, at the hospital, it’s the mom and the child, and almost all research looks at the impact of mother’s reactions on the child. We really know very little about the father-child dyad,” Dr. Delahanty said.
This grant also provides major support for students to be involved in cutting edge, hospital-based research.
“It really does increase the opportunity for students to be involved from the point of design through dissemination,” he said. “In this project we have undergraduates serve as recruiters. They go to Akron Children’s Hospital and recruit families. They collect data in-hospital and at regular intervals afterwards. They’re involved in the entire process, right up to the analysis and write-up. So students gain critical research experience that increases their chances of securing employment or being admitted to graduate school.”
(STOCK PHOTO) A mother holds her child during a trip to the doctor.