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.

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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.