“These kids have important lessons to teach us about the current and future state that we’re all going to be experiencing,” Peek, who is the director of the Natural Hazards Center, said.
“We need to know more about children who are now living through compound disasters, and we need to know about what that means for their mental health and for their physical health; what it means in terms of career choices and educational outcomes.”
While my article focuses largely on the students’ accounts, I thought I’d share here a bit more of the research and expert insight that shaped my reporting.
First things first…
“It’s important to remember that disasters don’t impact children equally in the same way that they don’t impact adults equally,” explained sociologist Alice Fothergill, who co-authored Children of Katrina
with Peek. In other words: the social and societal factors that influence how disasters affect adults also will shape the experiences of young people.
And there’s no “normal” way for children to respond to disasters, said Betty Lai, an associate professor at Boston College who has studied
how children dealt with trauma in the aftermath of hurricanes.
“For a long time in disaster research, we had this idea that there is sort of an average or typical response that people have,” Lai said. “Now, we know that isn’t true.”
So, the points below are based on research and commonalities identified over the course of years and multiple studies of students, but they certainly will not apply to every single young person.
Now, here’s what experts want you to know
Schools can play an essential role in disaster recovery, all three agreed. As Lai sees it, they’re “central to the functioning of a whole community,” allowing adults to focus on their own recovery needs while students can restore a sense of normalcy and social ties.
“We saw how good that was for them, that routine and being with their peers and even that chance to sort of laugh over some of the, like, absurdities or actually sort of painful moments of displacement — just that sharing of stories and having that unity,” Fothergill said. At the same time, missing out on anticipated rituals and milestones, like school dances or graduation, can be particularly painful.
Fothergill said her research has shown that it’s meaningful for children and teens to have opportunities to help in the aftermath of disasters. Even small acts, like helping their siblings do homework or making cards for first responders, can be a boon to their mental health — and make a significant difference in the recovering community.
“What sometimes happens is that children get cast as vulnerable victims or their capacities, strengths, smarts, skills, and hearts get overlooked,” Peek said.
She also urged more attention on how weathering multiple disasters as students impacts young people as they grow up.
“Models have been built on the assumption that there’s one disaster, and so you’re ‘recovering from’ one event and then you reach this ‘endpoint,’” Peek said. “And so what we’re living through right now with not just the multiple extreme weather disasters that are unfolding so rapidly but also with the pandemic is this reminder that recovery is not always linear.”
Lai stressed that there are steps that we should be taking before disasters strike, as well.
“We can better help prepare young people by teaching coping skills and teaching more about emotion regulation and general social support skills,” Lai said (she noted that there is, however, a shortage of counselors
in US schools to implement such programs).
“We can expect that we’ll see more disaster events, and given that, we really need to prepare young people and schools and communities for that eventuality,” Lai added.
“That’s kind of a long-winded way of saying that we should be doing more to prepare for these events, because we know that they’re going to happen.”