Posttraumatic growth: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?

This Thursday the live #traumaresearch chat on Twitter (10am Amsterdam; 8pm Melbourne) will be about posttraumatic growth. We’ll discuss the recent literature review by Meyerson et al.

Feel free to join us for the full hour or part of it, as an active participant or just by reading the comments. If you would like to participate but have no Twitter experience yet: have a look at this Twitter for Trauma Researchers video, it will explain you how to get started.

What is posttraumatic growth? In short, it is “Positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with trauma”. Or, in non-academic terms, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (Nietsche). Examples are feeling more connected to friends and family, having a clearer view of life priorities, or simply enjoying ‘the little things’ more.

As with many things in trauma research, there is quite an amount of work done with adults but far less knowledge on the experience of children and adolescents. Meyerson and colleagues summarize the findings of all articles and dissertations they could identify: 25 studies.

The literature covers a lot of ground and the small number of studies come up with many contradictory results. For example, one study found that posttraumatic stress symptoms (struggling with trauma) predicted later posttraumatic growth in child survivors of Hurricane Katrina but not vice versa. It indicates that children would indeed ‘need’ to experience these difficulties in order to feel personal growth (not suggesting that we would want any trauma to happen of course).

However, another paper by the same authors found that growth also predicted posttraumatic stress. And a third one showed that most growth was experienced with moderate (but not low or high) levels of stress. That suggests that children need some amount of struggle to be able to grow, but not an overwhelming quantity.

To generate some discussion topics for Thursday’s Twitter chat, I have summarized the main study findings in a table. That is, the number of studies that found a connection between growth and other characteristics of the young people.

The methodologist in me wants to warn you though: simple counting of studies may give very different results from a proper meta-analysis. Consider 7 ‘positive’ studies having an N of 10 or a very biased sample, while the 1 ‘negative’ study had an N of 1000 randomly sampled participants… So it’s really to provoke thoughts and make you look up this review to learn more:

What do you find intriguing about posttraumatic growth? What should we absolutely study? Any ideas about clinical implications?

Meyerson, D., Grant, K., Carter, J., & Kilmer, R. (2011). Posttraumatic growth among children and adolescents: A systematic review Clinical Psychology Review, 31 (6), 949-964 DOI: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.06.003

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