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Shaken Parent Syndrome

A month or two after the 22nd February earthquake, Christchurch people are well and truly ‘quaked out’. Harald Breiding-Buss relates his own post-quake moments as well as the current thinking on helping children through.

A couple of months have passed since the ‘Big One’ has hit Christchurch. For a while there, when the news from Japan came in, it even seemed to be only a minor event when compared to the amount of destruction there. Living in the south-eastern suburb of South Brighton, the reminders are all around me, though, as I drive to and from work each day: half-collapsed or already torn-down buildings, the potholes, bumps and dips in the badly damaged roads. The huge mountain of silt that had been trucked in from all over the city and piled up on a paddock not far from us has all but disappeared in a landfill by now.

When something like that happens it’s really difficult to keep a clear head. When the shaking had stopped on the 22nd of February, we all went outside our office, which is just east of the CBD and could see not much else but a dust cloud in the direction of the city centre. My younger daughter goes to school in the central city, and although at that stage it didn’t occur to me that whole buildings could have collapsed I was quite frightened. Fortunately I got hold of her on the phone right away. She was on the fifth floor of the building which contains her school and said she was alright.

Much of the city erupted into chaos as everybody was trying to get home. A ten minute drive from my older daughter’s school took two hours, involving a scramble over the collapsed South Brighton bridge ramps, ankle-deep sewage running across the road and wading through a swamp (normally a perfectly dry area) to get home. My wife, who walked into town to get my younger daughter and then back to her car, ended up borrowing cycles to get through, and arrived at about six that night, five hours after the quake had struck.

The thought of possibly coming back to an uninhabitable house triggered a sickish feeling in the pit of my stomach, and as I made my way home with my older daughter in tow we walked over the carpark of our local community centre, which featured sinkholes the size of large cannonballs. Mud ran freely down the driveways of some of the adjacent homes. Not a good sign. Arriving home the front door was jammed, the chimney had come down and the mess was incredible, but the overall damage was minor. Amazingly, we still had somewhere to live!
There was no power or water, of course, just a relentless barrage of aftershocks throughout the night, some of the epicentres within 1-2 kilometres of where we lived. The kids wanted to get out, saying they didn’t feel safe in Christchurch anymore. It’s hard to argue with that when the ground keeps shaking and you start thinking that this has happened twice already, what’s stopping it from striking again?

Many people did run, of course. We spent a couple of days with friends in Rangiora, where we were exposed to the depressing 24/7 news coverage of the event, which made it hard to gather up the courage to return to what was portrayed as essentially a pile of rubble contaminated with sewage. Coming back home, though, it wasn’t all that bad. Without electronic entertainment, and with the need to go and get water several times a day, we got to know our neighbours a lot better. We were blessed with some mild nights where we sat outside with others, sharing our stories.
We were without power for 14 days and without water for ten. A lot of our ‘trauma counselling’ was done in that time, simply by talking with neighbours. As I’ve since learned it is actually not a good idea to run away from an event like this, much less so with children. Routines and ‘normality’ help children and ourselves through it. Even without power and water, and frequently rocked by blasted aftershocks, it was a great comfort to be able to be at home.

Children couldn’t understand a lot of what was happening, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In our own hunger for information, many parents would have made the mistake of inadvertently exposing their children to the constant bad news coverage that did nothing but instil fear in them – and us. For little children most of the world is still pretty new, and many things happen for the first time. By themselves they would not recognise the significance of an earthquake like this, and the scale of damage caused. Unless they had experienced some pretty serious stuff first-hand their trauma would come from the reaction of the adults around them, not from the event itself.

It’s a different story for older children, where attitudes of friends and knowledge they may have themselves start to play a big role. The ‘news’ that some crackpot ‘scientist’ had predicted another major earthquake for the 20th of March was widely discussed amongst the friends of my teenage daughters. Add to this a little age-typical mistrust about your parents’ reassurances and you have the recipe for paranoia.

Older children or youths may understand some of the science around it which, in the case of earthquakes, is no comfort at all. A new ‘SKIP’ resource advises that ‘children want to try and make sense of what is happening, and when they don’t know they use their imagination to fill the gaps, which can make things more frightening.’
Ironically, a situation like this calls for the much condemned male trait of bottling up your own feelings so you can get on with it. The same SKIP resource advises ‘Try to act calm even when you are not feeling that way – it will reassure your children’. How many more people would have left Christchurch in panic, how many more children traumatised if there hadn’t been people in the house who were able to keep their cool – on the outside, at least. Men are good at this stuff.

Of course, many people in Christchurch have lost their home and face a long period of insecurity. For the children it is best, if at all possible, to establish a new base, avoid moving around too much, and keeping them at the school or pre-school they are used to.

It should go without saying that this is not the time to try and ‘correct’ unusual or timid behaviour. Many Christchurch dads have reported especially clingy children, some of which are getting the privilege of sleeping in their parents’ bed for the first time in their lives (although many families moved to the living room floor for a period of time after the quake and while the power was out). You don’t spoil them in doing this.

Adults in Christchurch and their older children will probably keep on suffering from what is known here as ‘quakebrain’ for months to come: difficulty concentrating, getting into useless arguments, interrupted sleep for no particular reason. It’s okay to indulge in a little more leniency than we normally would.

Father & Child News