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.

Helping adolescents through the Canterbury earthquake and aftershocks: Part One

One week on from the initial earthquake, and hundreds of aftershocks later, it is the weekend. A chance to take stock of what will be remembered as an unforgettable week for a generation of New Zealanders, with considerable uncertainty about what may be yet to come.

But much of the Christchurch CBD is accessible again. All over the region, people will be out and around, surveying their surroundings. Some will take the opportunity to re-connect with others, while others will perhaps take a moment to consider their journey so far, and what they might do next.

One group that can often suffer a little from the lock-down that tends to happen during emergency events are adolescents. All sorts of stuff going on in the life of a modern adolescent – family competes for attention with peer groups, cellphones, games consoles, and generally being out and around and exploring the world. However, under the threat of earthquakes and the aftershocks, people are sometimes enforced to spend a lot of time indoors and in cramped spaces. This weekend might provide a bit of release.

Adolescents involved in crisis and emergency events, may not always show their distress outwardly. As a result, adults may misunderstand their needs or find them unwilling to accept help. Adolescents frequently lose the self-assurance they had when younger, but often gain other types of confidence and abilities. Parents, and adolescents themselves, are confused by their inconsistent behaviour. They can think rationally, but have unstable emotions and may not apply logical thinking to real situations. They need support and independence to learn this. They want to be both close to others and time to be alone as they find new ways of relating to people. To communicate with adolescents, these contradictions have to be understood. Moodiness, depression and insecurity commonly alternate with excitement, happiness and adventurousness.

Whereas children are dependent on parents and live within the family, adolescents are usually proud that they could survive on their own. School, peers, other adults and social or sporting groups are a large part of their support network. They often do not feel the family is the life support system it was in childhood. Parents may feel sidelined, but their importance is no less than before, just different.

Adolescents usually don’t understand these changes although they feel the frustration of them. They need their family to be a trusted home base for their adjustment to painful events, but how much they rely on their family to come to grips with what has happened varies greatly from one person to another.

Adolescents are often more involved in doing things than understanding emotions and may lack words to express important feelings. They handle painful events by distracting themselves. They may be immersed in their own feelings and point of view and not recognize adults’ reactions. They may feel threatened when adults try to be logical about painful experiences and not fully understand what is said until later. But their behaviour often shows they have taken notice even when they don’t acknowledge it. It is important to allow time for them to work things out and not demand immediate feedback. Parents’ own anxiety may make adolescents confused and guilty or cause them to reject the parent’s emotions to protect themselves.

Jump down to Part Two of Helping Adolescents for more.

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.