Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU research may lead to happier children

Not many kids know Brian Wolff (MA ’05) but what he’s doing as a fourth-year PhD candidate in DU’s clinical psychology program may help prevent depression and anxiety later in their lives.

Wolff has spent much of his adult life learning how stress affects children living in poverty.

In his master’s work at DU, Wolff found that poor children have unusually strong physical responses to stress, such as increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing —responses that place kids at risk for anxiety, depression, respiratory problems and cardiovascular illnesses.

“Children living in poverty are typically exposed to more stress than other kids,” Wolff says.

Examples include moving more often, witnessing or experiencing violence, poor living conditions, parents with more physical and psychological disorders and economic strain.

Now in his PhD work, Wolff is looking at how social support affects children’s physical responses to stress.

Wolff says researchers know social support helps adults during stressful situations, but he says research is lacking in whether or not social support can help preschool-age children living in poverty.

To shed light on the topic, Wolff is measuring children’s reactivity as they respond to questions about their lives, repeat difficult sequences of numbers and letters, taste an unknown liquid (which turns out to be a few drops of lime juice) and watch scary movie clips (from The Land Before Time and a scene from Stand By Me when kids nearly get hit by a train).

Wolff changes a supportive social environment for participants by varying eye contact, smiles, proximity to the children and other body language.

“It’s starting to look like social support helps children engage more with the challenging task at hand and regulate their stress responses better,” Wolff says.

Martha Wadsworth, an assistant professor in the DU psychology department, says Wolff’s research holds promise for kids. “We anticipate it will contribute to our understanding of how poverty affects children’s development, [and help] craft interventions and policy recommendations for children in poverty.”

Wolff expects to complete his PhD requirements in 2009 and then hopes to continue similar research and possibly enter clinical work with children and families.

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