The Canterbury earthquake and the effect it may have on families: Part two

Yesterday, I posted about some of the short-term effects that emergency events like earthquakes and the cumulative stress of aftershocks can have. Today, I’ll continue to describe some the medium to long-term effects, helpful things to do, and some indicators as to when you might need to find help.

Medium term effects

Some families cope well with the crisis and immediate aftermath. Changes which are not obviously related to the crisis may occur some weeks or months after the incident.

  • Routine and work patterns, ambition or motivation in the affected member or others in the family may change; work efficiency and concentration may be reduced.
  • Spouses/parents may be short tempered, irritable or intolerant, leading to friction in relationships and misunderstanding between themselves and their children.
  • Children or teenagers can be clingy, attention seeking or disobedient – this usually indicates they are anxious or fearful.
  • Teenagers may become more rebellious or demanding, or through other behaviour, demonstrate a need to have a sense of control over their lives.
  • Child or adult family members may be overly concerned to help. They may try hard not to do anything wrong and postpone their own needs to support the affected member.
  • Family members’ feelings for each other may change by becoming more detached, uninvolved or preoccupied with personal problems as each member tries to cope with their own reactions.
  • Spouses may experience changes in their sexual relationship.
  • Children and teenagers’ school performance and concentration may be lowered; they may lose former interests.
  • Family members may lose interest in leisure, recreation, sport or social activities.
  • Teenagers may turn outside the family for emotional support from peers or other adults.

Immediate post crisis responses may persist or sometimes begin to appear for the first time.

Long term effects

Sometimes problems become evident for the first time, months or years after the event.

  • The memories of the traumatic event may come back for family members involved in another crisis, although it was dealt with at the time.
  • Family members, including children, often need to go over the events again when they grow into new stages of maturity and develop a capacity for greater understanding.
  • People may find future crises harder to handle, particularly when similar feelings are aroused, even if for different reasons.
  • Family members may cover up or cope with difficult feelings until all the fuss is over and things have returned to normal, and only then show their distress.
  • Any of the immediate or medium term effects may occur as delayed reactions or may become habits.
  • Problems often appear in the form of everyday frustrations. Retracing the way they have developed and examining connections to the crisis often makes the cause clearer. It is wise to assume that a major change or problem in family members in the next few years has some relationship to the crisis.

These problems are all normal reactions to an abnormal event that has touched the lives of the whole family. It is important not to blame each other. Try to understand how members affect each other. It is part of a changed pattern of family life arising from the crisis.

Helpful things to do

A few simple things will help families recover from crisis.

  • Keep communicating: Talk about what is happening, how members feel, what they need from each other. This avoids feeling alone, isolated and not understood. Don’t leave communication to chance, make opportunities for it to happen.
  • Share information: Communicate with children, teenagers and toddlers. They know something is going on and a painful reality is easier to deal with than the unknown worry of fear.
  • Do things together: Ensure time is reserved for recreation, enjoyment and rewarding experiences. Shared pleasure carries a family through many difficulties.
  • Keep family roles clear: Don’t allow children to take too much responsibility for too long, even if they want to care for a distressed parent. Help members preserve their role and position in the family and support them. Don’t overprotect children or adults. Be understanding if a member cannot fulfil their role for a time and talk about how they will resume when they are ready and able.
  • Be active: Tackle problems, seek help, seek information and don’t let small issues build up. Whatever the cause, stress leads to further problems. Stress factors don’t add up, they multiply and make everything feel worse than it is.
  • Look back: From time to time take stock of how each member has changed since the crisis. Look for the ways the crisis has influenced everyone for better or worse.
  • Allow expressions of emotions: Support distressed family members and allow them time to find their way through their feelings. They may express distress many times before it diminishes. Suppressing emotions places them outside control and therefore outside recovery.
  • Use other people: Keep in contact with support groups, other family, friends, neighbours, and workmates. Make sure the family doesn’t become isolated and too involved with itself. Share the experience with those you trust. Most families have the ability to grow through crisis. But understanding its effects and actively dealing with them is necessary.


When to seek help

There are a number of signs that recovery may not be proceeding in a helpful way:

  • Communication in the family is breaking down
  • Parents do not understand their children’s (or each other’s) behaviour
  • Things are not improving over time in the family
  • There is evidence of deteriorating physical or emotional health in any family member
  • Family members are not able to enjoy being together.

If you are concerned about yourself, your spouse, children or parents do not hesitate to contact someone trained to assess the situation and advise you. A little early help from a trained person can avoid long-term difficulty and give family members back confidence in themselves and each other.

I have adapted this from information issued by Queensland Health: Fact Sheets for Psychosocial Disaster Management. I have also compiled a version that you can download here.

The Canterbury earthquake and the effect it may have on families: Part one

People are usually surprised by how much an event like the Canterbury earthquake affects them. It frequently changes the way they think, their values, habits, feelings and behaviour. It influences most aspects of their life. Usually people do not expect their families to be affected as much as they are, but a major event or crisis in the life of one member always influences the family.

People usually underestimate the time it takes to recover from an event like this. Although it is made up of individuals, a family is a unit. What changes one member, changes the others. This also means there is a lot that family members can do to help each other in a time of crisis.

A crisis can also bring benefits to a family in the form of greater understanding, closeness or a new appreciation of each other. It can help to sharpen the focus on what is important in life. Sometimes a crisis can bring difficulties or misunderstanding within families. Family members may not understand each others reactions. They may have to adapt their behaviour to cope with these reactions. It may not always be clear how the feelings and bodily reactions are connected with what has happened, especially if they occur sometime after the event.

Most families overcome these problems when they begin to understand why they are occurring and accept that it will take time to recover. Some of the most common reactions to trauma and crisis are listed below.

Immediate effects

Some reactions may occur immediately after the crisis has passed and continue for some weeks.

  • Spouses/parents may be afraid for their partner’s/child’s safety while away from home.
  • Children and adults may have nightmares or develop fears that a fresh crisis will occur to them, or the family member involved.
  • Family members may be angry because of the fear and distress they were put through; these feelings may be directed at the family member involved, at each other or at people outside the family.
  • Family members may lose trust and confidence in themselves and other people. The world may no longer feel safe, their own welfare may seem uncertain, everything may seem too difficult to manage.
  • Children express their insecurity by naughtiness, bed-wetting, changes in eating and sleeping habits, tearfulness and irritability,  or reverting to behaviour they have grown out of.
  • Emotional turbulence, anger, guilt, sadness, unpredictable behaviour or unreasonable reactions may occur in any family member.
  • Communication may be difficult because family members do not know what to say to each other, or they do not feel like talking.

In my next post, I’ll write more about medium and long-term effects and what you can do to help.

Checklist: Common reactions, positive coping, and when to seek help

A new week is with us. So, here’s a heads-up.

Distress is an understandable and normal response to major disasters. Common causes of distress may be related to having been directly at risk from the earthquake and aftershocks, being concerned about family and friends who may be affected, witnessing injuries and distress to others, or being caught up in the panic and confusion that often follows. In addition, feelings and memories related to previous experiences of disasters or other grief and loss may also resurface. Most people experience acute stress during emergency events and most manage with courage and strength. However, sometimes it is only later when the distressing images are recalled that some of the stressful effects start to show.

While most people will manage with the support of family and friends, there are times when extra help and support may be needed. Those who have feared losing loved ones, have been seriously injured, or are highly distressed by the aftershocks, will often need particular support and care. Our communities have a history of coping with uncertain and troubled times with courage and strength.

There are three important things you need to know:

  • normal reactions to this type of emergency
  • positive ways of coping
  • when to get extra help.

Normal reactions to a disaster like this include:

  • shock and numbness, often fear at first
  • horror and grief when the extent of loss is realised
  • frustration, anger, helplessness and even sometimes despair when it all seems too much
  • sometimes fears or old worries may resurface.

These feelings usually settle over the early weeks.

Positive ways of coping may be:

  • supporting one another, especially in the family and in your community
  • providing emotional support – comforting each other
  • carrying out practical tasks – tackling the jobs that need to be done a bit at a time and counting each success
  • sharing your experience and feelings with others – a bit at a time when it is right for you
  • looking after your own and your family’s general health – rest, exercise, food and company all help (being careful not to drink too much alcohol).

Sometimes, post disaster stress can be ongoing and affect your physical and mental health and wellbeing.

It’s time to ask for help if:

  • your sleep is badly affected
  • you feel very distressed, irritable, on edge or agitated much of the time
  • you feel hopeless, despairing, miserable or that you can’t go on
  • you have trouble concentrating, are distracted and cannot do your usual tasks
  • you feel your health is not so good
  • you have recurrent nightmares or intrusive thoughts about the earthquake
  • you have new symptoms or old problems may seem to have returned, eg. breathing, heart and stomach problems.
  • For children, withdrawal, aggressive behaviours, difficulties at school, problems separating from parents or going to sleep may indicate the need for help.

This is just the brief version. If you want more detail about specific topics, check out the other posts on this blog. The home page will have a list of recent posts in the right-hand column. Or you can click here for the fact-sheets at the Ministry of Health. I compiled these too.

Helping adolescents through the Canterbury earthquake and aftershocks: Part Two

Continuing on from Part One of this topic, I could talk about the influence of peer groups and all sorts of other things. But, for now, I’ll cut to the chase. Here are some of the behaviours you might see from adolescents as they come to terms with their experience of being under threat with the uncertainty this involves:

These responses are all signs of the stress of coming to terms with crisis. They are normal reactions to abnormal events and should pass with time.

  • excessive concern for others, guilt, anxiety and insecurity
  • sleeplessness or wanting to sleep all the time
  • withdrawal from family, spending increased time alone listening to music or watching TV
  • wanting to be around the family more than before or more dependent on family or other people
  • sudden need for independence expressing feelings like ‘don’t treat me like a child’ and ‘you’re only my Mother’
  • uncooperative, irritable and only concerned with what is important to them
  • bored, listless and dissatisfied unable to cope with responsibilities or duties, reverting to immature or irresponsible behaviour
  • preoccupation with the trauma, wanting to talk about it all the time – or angrily refusing to talk about it
  • more detached from life, the future or interests, and an unwillingness to set goals
  • want to do everything now: they are impatient or intolerant
  • pessimism and cynicism, loss of interest in the future
  • changed values and philosophy of life poor concentration, memory, organisation, planning skills and reduced school performance
  • restlessness, always needing to be doing something or be with peers
  • exaggerated emotional reactions to small problems
  • angry, controlling, assertive and demanding
  • exaggeration or return of previous problems.

If some of this seems contradictory, welcome to the world of adolescence.

Here’s how to help:

  • Give them accurate information about the event and its consequences.
  • Correct any misunderstandings and rumours, but do not burden them with details unnecessary to the overall understanding
  • Encourage them to express emotions and put thoughts into words—if not with you, make sure they talk to someone. Give them the opportunity, but let them go at their own pace.
  • Expressing strong emotions is a natural way to come to terms with crisis. As the emotions subside recovery starts.
  • Suppressed emotions can cause long-term problems. But there are many ways to express, not just through talking.
  • Keep communicating, if they won’t talk about emotions, ask the adolescent what they are thinking.
  • Let them know about your reactions, explain about stress and recovery. Even if they don’t admit it, they do take in what is said
  • Keep telling them you love and care about them no matter what they do or say.
  • If they object to what you are doing, don’t argue, ask them how else you can help.
  • Reassure them about the future, especially that their current distress will pass in time.
  • Make plans to reduce pressure at school or in other activities if they are having trouble coping.
  • Support them to continue their social and recreational activities, to play, explore, laugh, even though the adults themselves may not want to.
  • Maintain routine and familiar activities, ensure life is secure and predictable; minimise change.
  • Keep them informed about how their recovery is progressing and what help is available.

Don’t make this the time to have disputes about normal problems such as work, chores or defiance. Leave this for later or it will be confused with the crisis reactions. The problems usually fade as adolescents recover. If not, the problems will be more successfully worked out later.

Adolescents’ striving for independence, seeking help from peers and adults other than their parents and expressing critical attitudes are all indications of parents’ success in giving adolescents the strength and confidence to become adults. This behaviour needs to be valued and worked with rather than against.

Sometimes, adolescents have a narrower point of view and can accept the earthquake and all it entails in a matter-of-fact way. They may not need their parents as much as parents need them. When this happens parents must continue to be available, but in a different, more detached way and avoid burdening adolescents with their own distress as much as possible.

An event like this also provides adolescents with opportunities for growth and discovery about themselves. With help, adolescents can eventually mature as a result of the experience. They often show strength and resilience that has not been evident before.

Videos explaining psychosocial support now on blog

These videos explain some of the concepts of psychosocial support, some the experiences you might be going through, and what you can do to help yourselves and others.

You can watch them by clicking on the videos on the right hand side of the home page on this site.

Psychosocial support after the Canterbury quake – Advice blog

In the hours, days and weeks ahead you may come across instances where people are worried, anxious, frightened, or just uncertain about their experiences and futures. You may be feeling like this yourself. Some will have experienced damage to their property which means that they cannot live where they normally live. Others may have experienced injury – whether to themselves, or their loved ones. And this injury could be physical or non-physical, visible or non-visible. What we know from the research is that most people will be ok, especially if they have their usual resources to draw upon – especially their social networks and experience with coping with adversity successfully before in their lives. Others will need more support.

This site provides information to help you to help yourself and others.

This blog started after doing some work over the first couple of days after the initial earthquake, having been quoted in a NZ Herald article here on helping children after the event (also also in the Star Canterbury and another article here, and here), and a Radio NZ National radio interview on Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan too. I also made a post on Nigel Latta’s Facebook page after being prodded by a friend on looking after children after the earthquake.

As a result of the work that I have done to develop the NZ Government’s psychosocial support response in emergency events, I’ve been inspired to set up this new blog on support after the quake – please check in regularly for bite-sized advice and tips to help you recognise some of the new and unsettling thoughts, feelings and behaviours that you and others around you might be seeing or going through, and how to help yourself and others.

I’m happy for you to share this information with whoever you think might find it useful. Just check with me through the comments function if it will be used for press or media purposes. Always happy to receive feedback too. Thanks.