Introduction: Literature reviews caution that estimating the effects of disasters on the behavior of children following a disaster is difficult without baseline information and few studies report the effects of earthquakes on young children. In addition the relationship between age at the time of disaster and consequential behavior problems have not been reported for young children who experience disaster-related stress during a developmentally sensitive period.
Methods: Behavior problems and symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) were reported for two groups of children from nearby neighborhoods during their first term at school, using the Behavior Problem Index by teacher report, following approved informed consent procedures. Data on one group, “Pre-EQ” (N=297), was collected four years before the beginning of the earthquakes on children born 2001-2002. Data on the second group, “Post-EQ” (N=212), was collected approximately three to four years after the beginning of the earthquakes on children born 2007-2009 and living in heavily damaged neighborhoods. The Post-EQ group had significantly more children from high socioeconomic neighborhoods but no other significant differences on main demographic characteristics.
Results: The mean behavior problem score was significantly higher in the Post-EQ group (Mean =6.11) as compared to the Pre-EQ group (Mean = 3.78). PTS symptoms were also significantly higher in the Post-EQ group (Mean =2.91) as compared to the Pre-EQ group (Mean=1.98) and more children had high PTS scores (20.9% v. 8.8%, OR= 2.73, 95%CI =1.57, 4.76). Model testing identified that a younger age at the time of exposure was the only significant predictor of high numbers of PTS symptoms in the Post-EQ group.
Discussion: Rates of teacher-reported behavior problems in young children more than doubled following the Christchurch earthquakes. Younger children may be more vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes that occur during a developmentally sensitive period. Additional research is needed to consider the effects of age and duration of disaster effects to better understand the effects of disasters on children, their families and communities.