Before reaching age 5, up to 45 percent of children in the United States experience “significant and non-normative” trauma such as maltreatment, chronic stress caused by poverty, exposure to violence at home or in the community, or a parent suffering from an alcohol, drug or psychological problem.
Now, a University of Kansas researcher has earned a $3.7 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to carry out a “gold-standard” study supported by KU’s Life Span Institute that will cast new light on how kids deal with traumatic life events.
“We are trying to better understand the adjustment process as early as it can possibly be captured, not just for the child but for family as a unit,” said Yo Jackson, professor in the clinical child psychology program and the psychology/applied behavioral science departments, who is leading the research.
Jackson said the study aims to grasp how trauma affects emotions and thinking by focusing on kids from ages 3-5. By starting early, the researchers can test children’s pretrauma emotional regulation and cognitive skills. Every six months thereafter, children will be reassessed. Additionally, the study will account for the interaction among the child, traumatic events and caretakers’ behaviors.
“This assessment will happen on the front end,” Jackson said. “By having a large cohort of children and families — not just the child, but taking stock of a child’s environment as well — we can get close to quantifying how traumatic events do and don’t affect children. Most studies rely on remembering, thinking back to traumatic events, but this study will be closer to real-time assessment.”
Jackson hopes to bring new scientific rigor to the question of how some children cope well with exposure to trauma, while others carry lifelong psychological scars.
“Kids exposed to same events react very differently,” she said. “As a clinician in grad school, I worked with brothers in Atlanta who grew up in a crackhouse — with all that comes along with that — and then in foster care. One was barely functional with five psychiatric diagnoses, but the other was a good speller, liked going to soccer practice and was a fairly typical 9-year-old.”
To understand such divergent responses to trauma, Jackson’s work under the new grant aims to provide first-time empirical evidence of the complicated process from exposure to outcome, with the goal of formulating evidence-based protocols to help kids achieve better outcomes.
“This will be one of the first studies to appreciate what new trauma does,” she said. “In current research, you don’t know if it’s domestic abuse or dad in jail — you don’t know which causes maladjustment. With this work, we’ll document differences in functioning as each thing happens. Common sense would say that your father dying is likely a really big deal, but you could be suffering because your mom also happens to do meth. We don’t want to aim intervention at the wrong things. We have to be prepared for counterintuitive findings.”
The study will track hundreds of children in Kansas City who are clients of social services agencies. Jackson’s co-primary investigators are Jane Roberts of the University of South Carolina and Kathy Grant of DePaul University in Chicago and Lesa Hoffman of KU’s Child Language Program and the Life Span Institute.
Jackson’s hope is that treatment rooted in a better understanding of the causes of childhood trauma in children will lead to psychologically healthier people.
“Significant effects from trauma don’t get addressed because we don’t think of trauma as part of the clinical paradigm — we often don’t think of life experiences to explain mental health,” she said. “We often focus on a mental health diagnosis, but that may not tell us what we really need to know to help improve a child and the child’s family’s well-being.”
With childhood trauma so widespread, Jackson said improved understanding of the causes and effects of trauma could make for better treatments and a healthier society.
“The only way to drill down is this arduous tracking over time — otherwise it’s a guessing game, and we don’t want to guess anymore,” she said.