This story is part of The Resilience Project, a Stuff and Sunday Star-Times investigation into how people can thrive amid Covid-19.
Chiquita Holden was nine when she was shot in the 1990 Aramoana massacre but in spite of the shrapnel she carries in her abdomen, her story is one of resilience.
Holden’s sister and father were killed in the massacre, and she lost friends, belongings, her home, even the family cat, when gunman David Gray set the house on fire as she fled the scene with gunshot wounds.
But, “I think it is important to talk about hope,” she says.
“There is hope for people, no matter what they have been through, they can move forward and lead a fulfilling life.”
Holden, now 39, granted a rare interview as Stuff examines how children can build resilience, particularly in light of the Covid-19 lockdown, which saw our youngest sacrifice schooling and fledling social lives, to stay home.
Child psychology experts say children possess an incredible ability to bounce back. Holden is testament to this.
On the evening of November 13, 1990, Holden and her sister Jasmine, and her father’s partner’s daughter Rewa, were on the street and overheard raised voices and gunshots from their neighbour’s house.
They ran into their home and huddled under a table. Holden was last in the door. Gray entered and shot her through her elbow, the bullet finishing in her abdomen. She fled past her dad, who was face-down, bleeding on the ground, to raise the alarm.
The trauma affected her for years, but Holden had no choice but to adapt and move forward.
Then New Zealand’s deadliest shooting, Holden felt like people didn’t know what to do, or what to say.
“I think [trauma] affects children differently because they don’t have the skills or perception of adults,” she said. “There’s not much to draw on.”
She had trouble sleeping, even with the light on, and liked to have background noise or her mum’s presence. She lost trust in the world, and she was anxious .
“At nine years of age I became an adult overnight.”
She was lucky to have her mum.
“She didn’t allow us to feel self-pity, we just had to get on with things. It sounds harsh but it was good for me to have that.”
For many who experienced trauma, there would be a prompt back into a normal life. For Holden, it was school. Having a routine, a distraction, restored her sense of purpose.
She moved to Auckland, and changed her name. But there was no counselling, or psychological support, and it took her longer to feel in control of her life.
But she also developed a deep sense of empathy. “You know things that you wish you didn’t, and you can look at someone else and connect with them on that level.”
For the young people still recoiling from the shake-up of the Covid-19 lockdown Holden said the response would be similar, and the worst may be yet to come as realisation hit.
But her story was one of hope. She was happy, and in a good place, and no longer felt anger or overwhelming hurt.
“I haven’t let my experience define me as a person. I’m not angry, there are no overwhelming emotions, I’m more… who I was supposed to have been.”
When the country moved to alert level 4, children were no longer able to see their friends, hug their grandparents, or swing on monkey bars. Classes moved online.
For the four Bradley children, aged 8 to 15, attending school and their ballet classes at home was sometimes a struggle, but it was made up for by family dinners and movie nights.
Liam, 11, said trying to do school work at home left him confused, and he struggled to clarify things with teachers from a distance. Zara, 13, found joy in her Zoom ballet classes, although the hallway was a bit cramped.
It was the little things that brought comfort in the ‘new normal’. Their grandad read to them and their cousins in another bubble over Facetime each night.
Katy, 15, in her first year of NCEA, mostly shut herself in her room to get her work done, but could hear her siblings playing outside.
Mum Emma said it was a struggle to balance her work with homeschooling. Mila and Liam needed more direction than the older two, and meeting managers’ expectations as well as her kids’ was hard.
Clinical psychologist Dr Dougal Sutherland said fostering resilience in children came from them knowing there was an end in sight, and having a safe and supportive environment. Kids picked up on adult stressors. Worries about sickness, job losses, and finances might pass them by, but the tone and atmosphere of their homes affected them.
“For kids, seeing their parents getting stressed out might be the major [point of anxiety] for them…Part of [a child’s resilience] is the adults in their life being able to manage their adult emotions around their children.”
Covid-19 was an opportunity for children to build resilience to anxiety.
Like Chiquita Holden found, having a routine, and a sense of meaning or purpose or goals put children’s eyes on something bigger. Finding something they excelled at, and encouraging that activity, could work as a buffer.
But it was important to acknowledge and accept emotions like anxiety and worry. Pretending there wasn’t an issue wasn’t helpful.
“If we push it away, we don’t get the opportunity to learn how to deal with it.”
Skylight Trust, which helps parents support children, saw a huge increase in traffic to their online resilience hub during Covid-19.
Chief executive Heather Henare said the amount of information to give children about significant issues was age dependent. Younger children might be told during Covid-19 that the world was unwell or people outside were sick. Teenagers could handle more detail, but parents should only give what they needed, Henare said.
“Don’t overload them with information, only that which helps them manage the situation, and make them feel they’ve got control.”
Some might not have realised how much stress their children took on. Closeness, cuddles, time together, familiar objects, soft toys, and being able to talk, would help children through.
Encountering trauma as a child can have far-reaching effects into adulthood, but Tom Broxham says you learn to overcome what you fear. Raised in Canada, by the time he was 13 he’d officially drowned once, and been close twice more. But he learned to swim as an adult, after feeling like he was missing out.
Aged three, his father took him fishing, turned, and when he looked up, it was to his young son floating past in the water.
His father leapt into the river and performed CPR in the water, before carrying him to land and continuing resuscitation. Broxham sputtered back to life.
For the rest of his time, everytime he got into the water, the incident replayed on his mind.
But after travelling a lot, to places with beautiful rivers and beaches, he decided to learn to swim. Now, “every single time I go into the water the anxiety is there”, but he’s determined his fear won’t stop him from missing out.
Child psychologist Hiran Thabrew said age and stage often determined resilience to trauma.Under fours often found it hard to separate facts from fantasy, for example, being incapable of seeing death as an irreversible concept.
By 13 they had access to more knowledge, making decisions based on information. Trauma in teens saw an increase in “overt worries”, perhaps asking more questions or independently researching. For younger children, there was more effect on their behaviour; not sleeping, acting out, or regressing to earlier habits, such as bed-wetting.
Auckland man Mike Phillips says his childhood resilience developed his parenting skills and gave him the confidence to try new things. His parents split when he was 12, and when he was 15, his mum left him in the family home alone for two months with just two cheques for food.
“I was probably always kind of resilient anyway,” he said. “Mum worked night shifts, so I was cooking dinner for myself when I was 12.”
But by the time he left school he couldn’t say the entire alphabet, or tell the time. When he was 18 he ran through an intersection and caused a fatal car crash.
“I was relatively independent and strong,” he said. “Those experiences probably helped me in later life. But when you’re young you don’t have the benefit of experience.”
After admitting to dangerous driving at 18, seven years later he was admitted to the bar as a barrister, partly thanks to leniency from the Law Society.
Now a father, he said his own trauma had, in some ways, impacted how he parented. While somewhat protective, he always encouraged her to try new things.
“I think we have to be careful with kids that we don’t take the ability to achieve things themselves, by wrapping them in cotton wool.”
Research suggested children could be adaptable, and even thrive, when faced with challenge. An Evaluation Associates report by Dr Wendy Moore and Dr Irene Anderson, found young people adapted and thrived in some aspects of learning from home during Covid-19 lockdown.
“Self-regulating, self-motivated, active learners are what teachers and leaders aim for across New Zealand schools.”
Post lockdown, 13-year-old Zara Bradley said returning to school was more stressful than going into lockdown. She worried she hadn’t done enough work, and her teachers would be mad.
The buses, too, seemed crowded and “germy”. But her fears were quickly alleviated – her teachers “understood we all had different lockdowns”.
Now, lockdown was a collection of memories, of gathering to watch the 1pm press conference, and meeting friends at the end of their driveway, at the chalk line drawn two metres from the gate.
The little hardships had brought them together, and strengthened their bond as a family.