The Aftershocks

The aftershocks of the Christchurch earthquake are not only literal, but emotional, as children all over New Zealand come to terms with the devastation. Counsellor John Carney talks about how you can lessen the turmoil for your child.

Traumatic events such as the earthquake may initially affect a child or young person’s sense of self, because it unsettles their trust in the world as a reasonably safe and predictable place.

understanding and supporting your child

Following the distressing and heart-breaking events in Christchurch, thousands of parents will have found themselves faced with a lot more questions than certainties about their everyday lives. Many parents will be asking themselves questions such as, do we stay in Christchurch, or do we leave? How do we respond to our children’s questions and fears? How do we create a sense of safety and continuity for our children? Parents throughout the country will find their own life journeys echoing and reflecting some of these questions. It is a time of enormous loss, grief and change, and it is also a time of reflection, gathering and hope.

Without minimising the enormity of these distressing events, one thing that is a certainty is the knowledge that even a major earthquake can have a silver lining. We have witnessed this in extraordinary acts of courage, generosity, kindness, determination, teamwork, compassion and even good humour. Many of these acts have come from our children. These silver lining stories are pivotal in a child’s healing from trauma and loss, helping children to regain competence, optimism and trust in their future.

stress responses in children

Traumatic events such as the earthquake may initially affect a child or young person’s sense of self, because it unsettles their trust in the world as a reasonably safe and predictable place. However, given time to recover and heal, most children who have been affected will spring back to their normal selves. Nevertheless, children can fear more than we may apprehend, because they may not express these fears directly.

Physical symptoms also commonly occur in response to ongoing stress and loss. Some children may develop stomach upsets, nausea, headaches, fatigue, anxiety symptoms, emotional swings, and sleep problems. Younger children may temporarily lose some of the developmental skills they had achieved prior to the earthquake. They may resort to bedwetting, wanting to drink from a bottle instead of a cup, and become more clingy and demanding. Older children may experience delayed stress reactions that show up in decreased work performance at school. These are normal responses to extraordinary stress, and mostly these fears, behaviours and physical symptoms will diminish over the following weeks and months.

At the same time, each person will have developed their own way of coping with the events and will have actively searched for ways to hold on to what is important and precious to them. Seen in this light, some behaviours that may seem to be regressive are actually a young person’s way of coping. For instance, a child may demand more attention and cuddles to help reconnect them with a sense of safety and feeling loved.

how parents and others can help children

  • talking it through
    Create spaces and contexts where your child can talk about their concerns or fears, and have them acknowledged and respected. Don’t rush in too quickly with solutions. Often children reconnect with their own inner strengths to be able to deal with fears, once they have had the space just to express them. While some children will feel the need to keep replaying the events in order to make sense of them, others may not want to talk about their experiences. Uniqueness is to be honoured. At the same time it can be helpful to create conversations that make specific references to a child’s skills in helping and coping with the events. Paying attention to a child’s concerns, while at the same time elaborating on stories around how they have survived, helped and how they are coping helps to reinforce particular skills.
  • expressing feelings
    After the effects of an earthquake, it is very normal for children to feel and express a whole range of emotions, from appreciation and caring to irritability, anxiety and sadness. Accepting these emotions and helping children to get in touch with some unexpressed emotions helps them to feel safe and validated. At the same time, it is important to continue halting any behaviour that isn’t acceptable. Limit-setting around unacceptable behaviour, encouraging and expecting competence, and reconnecting with normal routines alongside lots of cuddles and expressions of affection, helps to make children feel secure again.
  • bouncing back
    Children are naturally wired toward growth. When guided, affirmed and supported, they have wonderful inner resources to bounce back in time, after adversity. If your child’s confidence has been knocked, it can be helpful when they are ready, to broaden their range of hobbies and skills, such as rock climbing, carpentry, acting, creative writing, music or dancing. Activities such as these broaden their support system and strengthen their sense of mastery and competence. This all helps in being able to move forward.
  • writing it down
    For both younger and older children, you could perhaps encourage them to be a part of creating an important historical story about their experiences and how they have coped. Collectively, these could be powerful memoirs for New Zealand. Naturally, this also helps a child to have their own story validated and to be able to speak or write from a place of authority.We need to hear more from the children. How did they know how to escape? How did they hold onto qualities of caring and courage in spite of fear? What things are most important to them now?
  • caring for yourself
    A life-changing event like this is synonymous with stress, so for parents to effectively support their children, you also need to take care of your inner and outer worlds. Lessening your own worries and stress where you can, certainly helps to diminish your own child’s fear. So take good care of yourself.

If I am to think of the ways children in Christchurch have responded to the earthquake, what comes to me predominantly are their acts of caring, courage, concern, compassion, creativity and even cheerfulness in the face of extraordinary hardships. Beyond Christchurch, other children are responding to the tragedy in similar ways. Even my 7-year-old daughter Briar, who was not directly affected by the earthquake, said to me after witnessing images of the collapsed buildings, that if her little cousins were trapped in one of the buildings, she wouldn’t care if she got hurt, she would rush into the building and pull the stones off them and get them out. It is this trust in their own courage and life-affirming values and strengths that powerfully builds self-worth and symbolically becomes
one of the main foundations in
rebuilding Christchurch.

It’s Counselling Awareness Week May 9th–15th. To view programme details and participate in the Slogan Writing Competition, please log on to www.counsellingawareness.org.nz.

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