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LUF grant to take the war out of children

Sandy Overgaauw has been awarded a 25,000 euro grant from the LUF for her research into PTSD in Syrian refugee children in the Netherlands. The research should lead to a screening method that can be used to determine which children are at higher risk of developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Overgaauw worked as a postdoc on a study in the south of Israel that focused on the question of what the risk or protective factors are in the development of PTSD in children who are exposed to war violence? In that area there are often violent confrontations between the Israeli army and Palestinians.  The study was in collaboration with Professor of Neuropsychology Ellen de Bruin and their Israeli colleague Einat Levy-Gigi.

Overgaauw, an assistant professor since 2018, now wants to see if the preliminary conclusions also apply to refugee children in the Netherlands who have fled from Syrian war zones.

Sandy Overgaauw: ‘We don’t know exactly why one child develops PTSD when the other doesn’t.’

Empathy and cognitive flexibility

Previous research has shown that various social, cognitive and personal factors play an important role in predicting whether children will develop PTSD after traumatic events. Overgaauw: ‘But we don’t know exactly why one child develops PTSD when the other doesn’t.’ The Israeli research showed that children’s empathy and cognitive flexibility has a strong influence on whether or not they will develop PTSD, especially in relation to each other.’

Empathy is the ability to empathise, to put yourself in another person’s shoes or to feel their feelings even. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to take a different decision on the basis of new information, for example, or to adjust your behaviour towards another person.

The same results?

‘The Israeli children who scored high on both factors appeared to report fewer trauma symptoms', says Overgaauw. ‘Children who scored high on empathy and low on cognitive flexibility, on the other hand, turned out to experience more trauma symptoms.’ But does this also apply to Syrian children who fled to the Netherlands and applied for asylum here? ‘To establish whether that is the case, we will replicate the study with these children,’ says Overgaauw.  She expects similar results to the study in Israel.

Overgaauw found the test subjects for the new study through parents studying for their integration process at language centres in The Hague and in the vicinity of Rotterdam: the parents were approached and asked whether their children could participate.

‘I want to see whether the results could provide clues for an intervention method to help children from war zones.’

Red and yellow box

In her research, Overgaauw uses a combination of questionnaires and computer tasks.  In one of the tasks to measure cognitive flexibility, the child is shown different boxes, each with a colour and an image, for example a yellow box with a hat on it, or a red box with a car on it. When the children open the boxes, the yellow box with the hat on it contains gold and the red box with the car on it contains a bomb.  The content is changed later. How does a child deal with the fact that the yellow box with a hat on it no longer contains gold but a bomb? How quickly does the child process and use this new information?

Overgaauw: ‘Children who switch easily score high on cognitive flexibility.  Other children find switching more difficult, especially switching from negative to positive: letting it sink in that there is no longer a bomb in the box but gold. If these children are also highly empathic, the chance of developing PTSD is expected to be greater.’

Clues for intervention?

Overgaauw is very pleased with the LUF grant, which she will use for some important expenses: a student assistant to help her and a fee for the research participants.   She expects to be able to start analysing the collected data at the end of the year and will start working on the publication in 2022. But the most important thing is yet to come. But the main thing is yet to come.

Overgaauw: ‘I want to see whether the results provide any clues for an intervention method to help children from war zones overcome their disorder.’ That’s what I’d love to get started on.’

Sandy Overgaauw spoke about her research when nominated for the New Scientist science talent (NB. Voting is no longer possible).

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A student assistant is sorely needed because Overgaauw only works two days a week as a lecturer/researcher. She also works at the Leiden University Treatment and Expertise Centre (LUBEC). This is where patients are treated and research is conducted. Many of the (adult) patients have PTSD. ‘The research is close to my work at LUBEC. It teaches me to look at adult patients in a slightly different way. But I also want to see if I can try to get the war out of the children.’

The Leiden University Fund (LUF) provides young researchers with grants of between 5000 and 25,000 euros. The next application period will be from around December 2021 to February 2022. Read more 

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos of Sandy Overgaauw: André van Haasteren
Photo of refugee children: Janko Ferlic (Unsplash)

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