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DU psychology professor hopes to help children with grant

Sarah Watamura, associate professor of psychology, has studied stress in young children for years. Now she’s hoping new research will help prevent stress in children.

Watamura received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Department of Administration for Children and Families. The grant funds six sites across the country to see whether intervention techniques can be used to prevent the side effects of stress in small children.

The DU study will be a collaboration between Watamura, Amanda Moreno from DU’s Marsico Institute for Early Learning and Literacy, and Philip Fisher at the Oregon Social Learning Center. Therapeutic services will be provided through the Mental Health Center of Denver under the direction of Lydia Prado.

Watamura says stress can be very damaging because the body’s system that is supposed to protect someone actually hurts them. An overactive stress system can cause diabetes, obesity and a shortened life span.

“We know from the [Adverse Childhood Experiences] study — conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente with over 17,000 participants — that people who experience six or more adverse, stressful experiences during childhood live 20 years less than average,” Watamura says.

For the study, researchers will screen 360 families. The children in the families will be between 6 months and 3 years old and experiencing stress. Stress can be tested by a saliva swab in a child’s mouth. Adverse experiences for these families will include poverty, physical abuse, teen parenting and sexual abuse.

Half of the families will be taught how to buffer stress for their children. Watamura’s hope is that they can protect their children from some of the consequences of stress, despite their circumstances.

“Kids are very able to take buffering from other adults,” she says. “We cannot change their circumstances, but we can help them understand what an amazing strength good parenting is and we can interrupt this stress cycle.”

Watamura is at the start of this five-year study, but is optimistic.

“I’m really excited to have this opportunity,” she says. “This is a real possibility for intervention to work and make life better for these children.”

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