Among children in a behavioral treatment program, those with naturally higher levels of anxiety appear to exhibit greater resiliency after experiencing a severe natural disaster, compared to those with less anxiety, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.
The findings suggest that anxiety may act as an emotional buffer during a crisis and that interventions for natural disasters should consider focusing attention on children with lower levels of anxiety.
In April of 2011, four tornadoes with winds up to 200 miles per hour ripped through Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, killing 41 people and injuring more than 950. For the study, researchers sought to understand how pre-existing mental health symptoms influenced the behavioral and psychological adjustment of children in this post-disaster situation.
They examined the effects of varying levels of exposure on 360 children in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades who had been previously enrolled in a behavioral treatment program, as well as their parents.
“Initially, we thought that children with higher levels of anxiety prior to the tornado would develop intensified behavioral problems after the disaster,” said John Lochman, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., lead author of the study.
“Surprisingly, children’s anxiety appeared to help them handle the stress of a natural disaster more resiliently than those who had lower anxiety levels before the tornado hit.”
Participants had been previously selected based on aggression levels rated by their parents and teachers. They were enrolled in one of two intervention groups that teach children to use cognitive-behavioral strategies for goal setting, emotion regulation, and social problem solving.
Information was gathered on children’s and parents’ trauma exposure, and the children’s aggression levels in three waves: once before the tornado, within six months, and then one year after the tornado.
In addition to children’s reactions, aggression, and anxiety levels, researchers also took into account the parents’ reactions to the tornado’s effects. The children of parents who reported actually fearing for their lives showed a corresponding response in terms of internalizing behavioral problems, the researchers found.
“We believe that the parents’ emotional reactions to the consequences of this tornado may have had an impact on how their children reacted as well, causing them to show more signs of post-traumatic stress symptoms and aggression,” said Lochman.
The findings in this study suggest that children who are already involved in programs to help prevent aggressive behavior continue to benefit from these interventions even after a disaster.
Furthermore, in offering psychological intervention for children exposed to the devastating effects of natural disasters, programs may consider focusing attention on children with lower levels of anxiety.
Source: The Reis Group