Exposure to earthquakes appears to make many children in quake-prone Christchurch more resistant to other pressures in life, according to a New Zealand study released Tuesday.
Clinical psychologist Maureen Mooney from the Joint Center for Disaster Research of Massey University analyzed children's experiences of Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 to determine how they cope with natural disasters.
In her newly completed Ph.D. research, Mooney interviewed 42 children from five schools in Christchurch aged five, nine and 15 years, along with children from several Wellington schools as a comparison group.
"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 Mooney, who has confronted crisis situations in Haiti, Cambodia and Sudan.
Mooney, who is also a Red Cross consultant, 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.
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, she said, adding that distractions included playing video games, texting friends or playing sports, and problem-solving included suggestions about what to do in the event of an aftershock.
"They would use the Richter scale with me to say what they could do in a 4.5 or a 6 quake. They had worked out where to go in whatever space they were in as well," she said.
Children who didn't cope so well tended to use avoidance or withdrawal as a way of dealing with a situation, Mooney said, adding that in Christchurch, the parent/child and teacher/child relationship often provided specific protective elements that helped the children during the earthquakes.
"They purposely re-introduced the usual family or class rhythms, went on with lessons calmly after an aftershock, went out for walks, celebrated birthdays, etc. to reestablish the children's routines," she said.
Parents and teachers often helped to process or supporting children's coping abilities as well as eventually encouraging a re-focusing on everyday tasks, she said.