Exposure to earthquakes has made children in Christchurch more resistant to other pressures in life compared to children with the usual challenges of growing up, new research has found.
Massey University clinical psychologist Maureen Mooney used children's experiences of the 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquakes to determine how effectively they coped with the natural disaster.
She found that the children who dealt most effectively with the earthquakes had multiple coping strategies compared to a Wellington comparison group of children interviewed who were mainly coping with the usual challenges of kids growing up such as conflict in the playground and peer pressure.
"All children were interviewed 20 months after the first earthquake during an ongoing aftershock sequence, and six selected children from Christchurch were interviewed again three years after the initial earthquake," said Dr Mooney, a researcher for the Joint Centre for Disaster Research based at Massey University's Wellington campus and Red Cross consultant who has worked in Haiti, Cambodia and Sudan.
Dr Mooney found that the Christchurch children who dealt most effectively with the earthquakes had multiple coping strategies that they used flexibly, in comparison to the Wellington children who were mainly coping with challenges appropriate to their age.
"For example, children practised how to keep calm and used distraction as a coping strategy when they could not control the situation, but then used a problem-solving strategy when they could have some impact on their circumstances."
Distractions included playing video games, texting friends or playing sports.
Problem-solving included suggestions about what to do in the event of an aftershock, Dr Mooney said.
"They would use the Richter scale with me to say what they could do in a [magnitude] 4.5 or a 6. They had worked out where to go in whatever space they were in as well."
Children who didn't cope so well tended to use avoidance or withdrawal as a way of dealing with a situation, Dr Mooney says.
In Christchurch, the parent/child and teacher/child relationship often provided specific protective elements that helped the children during the earthquakes.
"They purposely reintroduced the usual family or class rhythms, went on with lessons calmly after an aftershock, went out for walks, celebrated birthdays, etc to re-establish the children's routines."
Parents and teachers often helped processing or supporting children's coping abilities as well as eventually encouraging a refocusing on everyday tasks, she says.
"A few children had considerable inner resources and were able to take away positives from the situation. For example, a 5-year-old explained how he could support another child by telling them that the earthquake was probably only an aftershock - so 'just a little one'," said Dr Mooney who has her doctorate formally conferred on Thursday at Massey's University's graduation ceremonies at the Michael Fowler Centre.
"When children perceived that their community was exhibiting signs of recovery and competence, the neighbourhood and community appeared to have a positive effect on their sense of connectedness, local identification and promoted their sense of recovery."