The University of Alabama

UA Leads Study on Emotional Effects of Natural Disasters on Children

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The psychological effects caused by a natural disaster can linger years into a child’s life, long after communities have been rebuilt and emotions have leveled.

The effects, both good and bad, can be shaped by a child’s support system, which can include counselors, teachers and caregivers.

Dr. John Lochman, professor and Saxon Chair of Clinical Psychology at The University of Alabama, is leading a nationwide team that will spend the next five years studying the effects of degree of exposure to the April 27, 2011 tornado in Tuscaloosa on 360 children and their families.

Lochman, partnering with investigators at UA, the University of Kansas, the University of Minnesota and King’s College in London, received a $1.9 million grant to fund the study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with co-funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the NIH Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research, and the NIH Office of Disease Prevention.

While there have been published studies on the effects Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Andrew had on anxiety and depression in children, the UA-led study will be unique in that it will focus on externalizing behaviors, like physical aggression or verbal bullying, as well as children’s physiological responses, and social relations with other children, as well as the emotional effects on parents.

What really sets Lochman’s project apart from previous studies is existing data from a sample of at-risk children in the Tuscaloosa area, he said.

In a previous study funded by the National Drug Abuse Institute, Lochman and a research team randomly assigned pre-adolescent children who had at-risk behavior in the Tuscaloosa area to different intervention formats, some in small groups and some in one-on-one counseling. Researchers are in the final year of collecting follow-up data and have noted similar improvements in both formats.

“In most trauma research with children, there’s never really been a pre-trauma score,” said Lochman. “None of the prior studies have had this wide range of markers of children’s pre-trauma functioning. This really is an unusual opportunity.

“This study will critically advance scientific understanding by allowing for comparisons of children’s and parents’ pre- and post-disaster functioning on a range of biopsychosocial indicators,” Lochman added, “and also by exploring the effects of timing and type of intervention in trauma-exposed youth and parents.”

With pre-tornado data, Lochman and his team will be able to study the children’s peer relationships, both before and after the tornado, and will show if the externalizing behavior got worse or better after the tornado.

Lochman said he’s seen both instances and that the degree of exposure to the tornado makes a difference. Additionally, the study will include a variety of measures of other types of traumas and stressors, like a divorce, that the parent and child experiences after the tornado.

“At least some of these children who experience the trauma may be faring better,” Lochman said. “Many of our children received positive support or involvement from social networks. For some of these children, it was probably life-changing. We’ll be very interested in finding positive and negative spirals.”

Lochman also has existing data about children’s autonomic nervous system functioning, which includes measures of how much they sweat during tasks, heart rate and cardiovascular response, all of which are indicators of sympathetic and parasympathetic responses of the nervous system.

“There’s a belief that traumatic events affect functioning of this and makes people more hyper-reactive to that event,” Lochman said. “This is a great opportunity to look at that, to see if this event changes stress reactivity.

“We expect the children who were most stress reactive on these physiological measures shortly after the tornado are going to be the most at-risk for emotional problems in years ahead. The neurobiological reaction is going to be most important.”

Lochman’s UA team consists of Dr. Nicole Powell and Dr. Caroline Boxmeyer, both of whom were involved in the first study and will oversee the data collection. Dr. Christina McDonald, who specializes in children’s peer relationships will assist with analyses of sociometric data, and Dr. Matt Jarrett, an expert in ADHD and anxiety, will assist with examination of the anxiety outcomes.

Dr. Andrea Glenn, Dr. Bonnie Klimes-Dougan, and Dr. Ted Barker will assist with looking at how genetic polymorphisms interact with major stressors caused by the tornado.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.