How do you help children cope with a life-threatening incident? And what if you’re stressed yourself?
Katy Gosset looks at the far-reaching emotional effects of the Canterbury earthquakes.
It’s been ten years.
And yet when the earth shifts even just a little bit, 11-year-old Ella* still freezes.
"She panics. You see every part of her tense and she doesn’t say anything.”
“She goes quiet, but you can just see the fear, the absolute fear in her eyes,” her mother, Amelia* said.
The magnitude 7.1 earthquake on September 4 2010 began a series of tremors that dogged the Canterbury region.
The most prominent: a 6.2 quake on February 22 2011 that claimed 185 lives.
Ella was almost two when it all began and seemed initially unfazed but, as time went on, the anxiety began to emerge.
Amelia recalled her daughter’s reaction during the Valentine’s Day quake in February 2016.
“I looked at her and she went white. She froze and she said, ‘I want to be sick.’”
It’s a similar story for Margaret whose four daughters all struggled to cope with the ongoing earthquake sequence.
“They were quite traumatised. Being a massive earthquake it was quite scary and it took a long time to settle down.”
So much so that, even a decade on, reactions remain acute.
“They’re quite fragile around them. They don’t even like you mentioning the earthquakes.”
“They’re older but I noticed that the other day when we had that earthquake, I still gave my 18-year-old a cuddle because she was actually physically shaking. So it’s still there by a long way.”
The girls are part of a cohort of Christchurch children who’ve grown up amidst constant aftershocks and life changes.
When Christchurch clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher takes a developmental history from a new client, a chat about the quakes is now standard procedure.
“Talking about their responses to the earthquake and what’s happened for them and their families has become just part of that conversation.”
Gallagher has seen numerous children affected by the quakes and even ten years on, they are still presenting with related issues.
“It might have become more, over time, just a diffuse sense of not feeling quite settled and safe.
“Some, absolutely though, if a truck goes past or an alarm goes off or the wind rears up, they can certainly find themselves having a much, much stronger reaction and that can really be traced back to their experience of the earthquakes.”
After all, many have seen things that were very unsettling.
“Watched buildings crumble, routines changed, Mum and Dad were under pressure. Ongoing aftershocks, ongoing house and life changes.”
And, in some cases, that stress caused a change in their brain functioning.
“The brain’s main function is to the keep the body that it lives in alive and so, when confronted by danger or uncertainty, it jumps into action, you know the old fight, flight, freeze.’’
Gallagher said in the short term that response was designed to be energising, prompting action and getting people out of trouble.
However she warned that long term exposure could result in chronic stress.
“This high level of stress over a long period of time takes its toll as sustaining high alert can be completely exhausting.”
In other words, a pretty stressful time for both parents and children.
And yet not everyone experienced the disaster in the same way, Gallagher said. It was important to distinguish between those who were frightened by the quakes and those who were actually traumatised.
While it was scary for many there were also upsides.
“It was associated with time off school, no rules around TV watching, sleepouts in the lounge.”
“Some kids might even have felt scared but when they got home and their homes and loved ones were safe and sound, [they] actually got back to normal pretty quickly.”
“So these kids lived through something scary but they may not have been traumatised,” Gallagher said.
Trauma, on the other hand, was the experience of someone fearing for their life.
“And I mean actually thinking they were going to die or the life of someone they loved was going to be lost, or feeling completely overwhelmed by the experience.”
Are my children traumatised or did they just get a fright?
The tricky thing for parents was working out if a child was traumatised or merely distressed by a dramatic experience.
The best initial course of action was providing what Gallagher called the basics: ‘love and support and predictability and getting life back to being as consistent as possible.'
That would help children in both categories settle back into a routine.
However Gallagher pointed to a couple of clues to help parents work out how badly children had been affected.
“So if in fact your child came out of that experience and you were separated from them and they were talking about, ‘I was so worried I was going to die’ or ‘’I thought you were dead’, those can be kind of clues that in fact there might be some stuff festering away in there that might be of concern.”
Another clue was the degree of distress.
A child who only showed concerns when asked to go to bed might still be suffering from trauma.
“But, if for the rest of that day they’re absolutely fine and functioning well, we could suspect that, in fact, this is about us learning to manage bedtime in a more predictable and safe way rather than thinking, ’Gosh we can’t push them around the bedtime issue because they might be traumatised,’” Gallagher said.
Parents should, however, take action if a child was consistently upset or shaky and presenting with other symptoms such as ‘jumpiness, nightmares, flashbacks, concentration issues‘.
‘’[If] their mood and their general way of being in the world has been affected, then we’re looking at something a little more concerning. Those are the kinds of clues that they might need a bit of extra help.”
It was appropriate to handle potentially traumatised children with kid gloves and they might need an individualised plan to help them recover, Gallagher said.
However their parents should still be gradually helping them back to normal patterns.
“I’ve heard parents say, ‘Well I can’t make them be in their own room because that would traumatise them.
‘’Now, if there’s been trauma it may well be that we need to manage that removal from the parents’ bed or those other aspects of safety very gently and carefully. We still have to move towards independence and life as normal.”
If the child had just got a good fright, Gallagher said parents could move routines back to normal even more quickly.
“We can hold off doing things for fear of distressing young people where in actual fact we need to step in there and say ‘Hey this was a big deal. I’m sorry you had a fright but actually we need to get life back to normal as quickly as possible.’”
And that included staying staunch when it came to family rules.
“If there’s a fight and someone punches someone, just ‘ços we’re all stressed doesn’t suddenly make that OK. We’ve got to reinforce our rules and expectations the way we normally would.”
Parents should also be mindful of the possible impact of the earthquakes on very young children or even babies.
“We used to think ‘Isn’t it lucky that that’s happened while I was pregnant or while my child was a baby because they won’t remember it,’” Gallagher said.
This could be true if the baby’s immediate world and family life were largely unchanged by the experience.
However if the baby’s world was turned upside down, there could be flow-on effects.
“The more primitive parts of the brain that are developing that influence such things as regulation can actually be affected and this goes for in the womb too.”
That could be compounded if a baby or young person was in an unsettled environment.
“If they have been born into families where Mum and Dad are feeling stressed and dis-regulated by what’s happened [and] life continues to be uncertain, then absolutely this is going to have an impact for them.”
Gallagher recommended that parents take the time to look after themselves and get support if needed.
“Most parents are doing a great job and their kids will be fine. However in order to help our kids thrive and not just survive, parents might need to step outside their comfort zone and ask for help.”
Gallagher believed some children who were badly affected by the earthquakes might still need intensive therapy to help their brains make sense of their experiences.
“But these therapies work. Kids are adaptive and they can learn.”
And she said traumatised children were not ‘broken’ by the experience.
“With support, understanding, safety, predictability and adults who can help regulate their emotions and behaviour, they’re going to be OK and that’s a really important thing to hear.”
Tips to help children cope with the aftermath of the earthquakes
- Offer the basics: love, support and predictability.
- Keep family routines consistent.
- Encourage children back into their own rooms and beds.
- Enforce household rules – being stressed is not an excuse to get away with hitting or other misdemeanours.
- Keep an eye on clues that the child might be more traumatised: note the degree of stress and what actually happened to the child during the quakes.
- Keep your own (parental) anxiety or stress under control around children and seek help and support for yourself.
- Get clinical help or therapy for a child if the return to normal household patterns is not helping.
*Not their real names