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How to Care for Children After a Traumatic Event - Christchurch Earthquake

image used with permission Geoff Trotter

 “I don’t like big erfquakes, They’re stupid!!” exclaims almost three year old Marco, now a veteran of two major earthquakes and living with his parents and older brother in Christchurch, New Zealand. Since September 2010 when the first major earthquake hit the ‘Garden City’ of New Zealand, Marco has labelled every run down building or scaffolding in the street as “Look at that big erfquake” and on the day prior to the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, his house was burgled – his first reaction, “an erfquake.”

On 22 February 2011, Christchurch, was shaken by a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake. In its wake some Christchurch families are feeling overwhelmed. Not only have some lost loved ones, each day they face significant challenges and disruptions without knowing when life might return to normal. Each aftershock brings natural feelings of fear, worry and reminds residents of the recent devastation.

And five year old Louis who only started school in August last year has twice had his education abruptly interrupted by earthquake damage to his school and city. Standing safely in the doorway with his mum just over a week ago as his house was shaken violently, he told his mother that he understood what was happening, and that the “plates are smashing together”.  He hasn’t asked why he’s not going to school at the moment or when he is going again; he and his brother are more interested in knowing why they are using a backyard hole as a toilet and washing their hands in rainwater.

How do adults help children recover from the stress of the earthquake when they are dealing with their own anxieties about their future and safety? Michelle Forward, mother of Louis and Marco says “Although the boys and I spent the first ten days in our neighbourhood it was hard to keep things normal.  Roads and footpaths that were once flat are now cracked or have big bulges in them, making the bike riding a bit more challenging … The pain and stress is written on everyone’s faces.  I think the children can see that without a spoken word.”

Dr Maria Kangas says parents should “take care of themselves so they can assist kids with their needs … children of overly anxious parents can ‘feed’ off their parents’ anxiety”. Dr Kangas is a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University’s Centre for Emotional Health, working on interventions for children suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And Alexandra De Young, a psychologist at PsyCare  and Research Fellow at CONROD says “Young children are particularly dependent on their parents to help them cope with traumatic events.  They therefore need more help from their parents with regulating their emotions and self-soothing for example…” and De Young, whose Clinical Psychology PhD on young children’s recovery from traumatic events, adds that “… children cope with trauma in different ways and there is no one ‘standard’ way that a child will react…”.

This information may also help parents recovering from other natural disasters, like the recent Queensland floods,Cyclone Yasi and the Japan earthquake and tsunami.

While this information is intended to be helpful on the road to recovery - all adults who have concerns about their own or their children’s emotional wellbeing should talk to their medical health professional for individual and expert advice.

What Parents Can Expect from Children After a Stressful Event

At the time of writing this article one week has passed since the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. If you’re living in Christchurch and caring for children, and in some cases even if your children have connections to family and friends in Christchurch, it’s natural to expect temporary changes in your children’s behaviour and possibly their sleeping and playing patterns. Following a major traumatic event there will be a normal adjustment period for children of all ages - the length of this may depend on what your children have directly witnessed and how the event has impacted your family. Most children are very resilient and their reactions to stress will taper off gradually over a few weeks’ time.

Some children may look for extra reassurance in the weeks following the earthquake – for example they may ask for a night light or for you to stay with them as they fall asleep. Other children may become more clingy and want you present at events they would normally attend on their own. In some cases, children will appear very resilient in the first few days following a stressful event but react to the trauma later. Although some changes in behaviour are to be expected, if you see reactions or behaviour in children that seem extreme or concerning, you should not hesitate to ask for professional support and advice.

Talking to Your Children and Parenting After a Traumatic Event

Mother of two, Michelle Forward explains “The boys and I have slowly travelled further out of our neighbourhood and it is very confronting.  There is building after building being torn down and all that is left is an empty space.  It’s really disorientating.  Not only were the buildings everyday services that you used, or full of memories of times spent in them, but they were also like a map navigating you around the city.”  Michelle says that thinking about how to talk to the kids gives her “an overwhelming sense of responsibility. We’re trying to maintain normality in an abnormal situation.  I am hyper-aware of our surroundings and worry about how much more force our house can withstand. We all know we can't control nature, but after experiencing this, to have our kids feel safe and loved is top priority.”

There are simple things parents and carers can do to help children recover from trauma. If your children or their family have been directly affected by the Christchurch earthquake, they are likely to need more support – this will especially apply if someone has died or has been injured or if there has been a major change such as the loss of a family home. (go to Next Page)