Storms leave children quaking

JANE DUNBAR
Last updated 11:28 05/12/2013

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Christchurch's earthquakes have meant that some children have become unusually afraid of storms and strong wind.

During thunderstorms they hide under blankets. Hailstorms can reduce them to tears. A strong wind blowing can have them scuttling into parents' beds.

We've always had bouts of extreme weather, but some Christchurch children are finding dramatic weather harder to cope with and the earthquakes are partly to blame.

A friend's teen gets hyper-anxious just thinking about thunderstorms and trembles under a duvet during a storm. Another's 9-year-old is so disturbed by strong winds he can only hope to sleep if he wears earplugs.

Christchurch child counsellor Susan Alderston says that since the earthquakes many more children have come to her suffering intense fears of certain weather conditions.

"These include wind, hail, heavy rain and lightning. Some of these children are terrified of hurricanes, tornadoes and tsunamis. It seems that with more extreme weather children are being reminded (consciously or subconsciously) of the noises they heard during the earthquakes and large aftershocks.

"The earthquakes and aftershocks were unpredictable and so is the weather, and this is highly frightening for many children. Some children come to counselling with high anxiety about daily weather events and spend a lot of time checking on, or asking about, weather forecasts." Some Christchurch principals have noticed effects at school.

"We've noticed a greater sensitivity [among pupils] to unpredictable noises and things they don't have control over, like the weather," John Bangma, principal of Mairehau Primary School says.

In one extreme case, "the child would curl up on his mum's lap and howl with the storms or strong wind, any untoward weather".

The child, and two others at the school, have since been diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and are being helped through counselling.

At Cashmere Primary School, principal Jacqui Duncan says they believe the earthquakes have had a profound effect on children and their families "and this is ongoing".

Examples of more extreme needs at Cashmere Primary have been: High anxiety around wind and storms - two families; ongoing sleep difficulties - children still waking in the night and sleeping with parents - four children; and children attending counselling (two to three children).

While the numbers of children affected are low, they are affected in intense ways. The cases are also the ones that have been brought to the school's attention. " We suspect that there are more that we don't know about," Duncan says.

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At Thorrington Primary, a clinical psychologist was invited to speak to parents at an information evening because the school recognised that there were lots of children who still were dealing with anxiety as a result of the earthquake, principal Christine Harris says.

"We also ran the friends programme school-wide, which helps children deal with anxiety. The programme helps children to recognise helpful and unhelpful thoughts and gives them strategies to soothe and calm themselves."

Child psychologist Justine Wilson says she has dealt with a number of children who are scared of the weather since the earthquakes.

"It is often perplexing for the parents and the children who often feel confused and upset that they are worried about something that never used to be a problem for them."

Wilson says there is no easy and straightforward advice for children suffering from phobias about the weather.

Every child and every family is different and it takes meeting the whole family to get a full sense of why a child might be feeling highly anxious.

"I always see parents first to get a comprehensive background," she says. "Then when I see the child, I can see how it fits together, and work out what the plan can be in terms of tackling the behaviour."

It helps for parents to be gentle and sensitive about their child's fears, she says.

"But the issue with reassurance is that if cuddles help, and those cuddles are at 2 o'clock in the morning, then after a while that wears mum and dad out."

Wilson says she is seeing many parents who themselves are highly stressed post-earthquakes, and so their tolerance for certain behaviours is affected.

She says it can pay for parents to think about their own behaviour during scary weather because children pick up cues from parents. She also says some people find it helps to limit their children's exposure to TV coverage of extreme events.

COUNSELLING HELPS CALM FEARS

All the houses have fallen over and everyone is dying - that's what Thomas, 9, depicted in a sand tray when he first went to see a counsellor.

Thomas is one of numerous Christchurch children whose sense of wellbeing has been seriously undermined by the earthquakes. And in Thomas's case, this anxiety has transferred into a fear of weather, particularly wind.

"He gets very sensitive about the noise of wind and fears that things will fall over or the house will fall over and that everyone is going to be hurt," says his mum, Liz.

"We tried to reassure him and say, 'no, that won't happen' but we got to a stage where every night it was leading to nightmares and he was coming to our bed and everyone was getting tired and grumpy."

Thomas's lack of sleep meant he started getting distracted at school, finding it hard to concentrate. A deputy principal at Thomas's school started helping him, and also recommended a counsellor.

The counsellor has helped considerably.

Among the things that have worked for Thomas are setting aside a particular time each day to talk about worries rather than just worrying all day; being shown the roof close up and seeing how it is firmly attached to the house so it won't blow off; ear protection to block out the noise of the wind; and a radio in his room that he listens to as he goes to sleep, and which tells him the time during the night so he knows it's not time to get up and go and see mum and dad.

The family has also found that keeping the TV news off has helped. With all the coverage that the news gives to natural disasters, Thomas started to believe that a tornado or hurricane could strike Christchurch at any moment. Now, "we don't watch the news when the kids are around," says Liz.

After four to five counselling sessions, Thomas has begun to sleep better.

They live on a hill so it's always been windy around their home. But with missing bricks, and tarpaulins covering gaps, and holes in the surfeits, as they wait for repairs, their home is far from airtight.

Liz wishes the repair process could have been faster.

"It would have made a difference to Thomas's peace of mind to know that our house isn't broken and isn't in need of repair," she says. "He does see the cracks, the holes, the broken bits . . . and it has an effect. It's a lot to deal with at his age."

DETAILS

If you have a child who is badly and continuously disturbed by the weather (a certain degree of fear can be a typical developmental phase) then contact your school or GP for advice about counselling. Many workplaces also have Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) which provide free counselling for employees and their families.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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