Illustration: Sébastien Thibault


Children and Natural Disasters

As catastrophic events become more frequent, BC Associate Professor Betty Lai is researching how to promote recovery and resilience in kids. 

After a hurricane wreaks havoc on a community, its effects on kids can linger long after the floodwaters recede. Disasters threaten children’s long-term mental and physical health as well as their academic success, said Betty Lai, an associate professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “Children are one the most vulnerable groups when exposed to disasters,” she said. “They aren’t just mini adults—the meaning of a big life event is very different in your forties than it is when you’re 5.”

One of Lai’s studies, for example, found that eight months after Hurricane Ike, more than 40 percent of children reported ongoing sleep problems. Another of her research projects linked Ike with a lack of activity among kids. And in a third study, she found that students experienced post-traumatic stress and elevated anxiety after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, leading to an increased likelihood of trouble at school. “The good news is that many children are resilient after disaster events, and we do have great treatments,” Lai said. “But a lot of those treatments are very intensive and expensive. We need a plan for triaging and understanding which children are highest-risk so we can intervene early.”

Witnessing the struggles of kids is what inspired Lai to study child psychology. As a New York City teacher in the early 2000s, she was struck by how problems outside of the classroom seemed to affect students’ academic outcomes. Lai was pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Miami when, in 2008, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, Texas. “I wanted to understand how we could help children in a community recover from an event like that,” she said. And that’s exactly what she does now at BC. Her Lai Lab researches how children and families recover not only from natural disasters, but also from other traumatic events such as pandemics and war.

Most previous work on this topic has focused on the “average” child. But Lai’s research emphasizes that not all children are the same. One study she conducted in Texas, for example, found that Hurricane Ike affected academic functioning more negatively in lower-income public schools. That is why she’s developing statistical models that researchers can use to understand which children are most vulnerable to the lingering effects of a disaster, and how to intervene before their symptoms become long-lasting. Her most recent study identified “symptom trajectories” among youth exposed to major hurricanes, pinpointing characteristics—such as age, ethnicity, and gender—that predispose children to more serious forms of chronic post-traumatic stress.

For the most vulnerable kids, early intervention is key. That includes implementing trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy quickly after a disaster. It also involves preventive measures, such as increasing the number of school counselors. While the American School Counseling Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, Lai said, only two states currently meet that ratio. And as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of disasters, it’s more important than ever to be prepared. “Many children will experience at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime,” Lai said. “We need to better prepare communities and families before these events that we know are going to happen.” 

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