Learning from Youth Post-Disaster
Words of wisdom from those who have been through it before
What are the needs of youth living through disasters?
This was a question I kept asking myself when I thought about the youth living through the 2013 Alberta floods. What were their experiences and what could we learn from them? In 2019, I interviewed nine youth who had graduated the year of the flood to find out what life had been like for them during and after the disaster (Markides, 2020). I chose this group because they were transitioning from life in school to life out of school at the time of the event. The stories and advice they shared about living through a disaster has significant bearing for supporting youth during our current pandemic times.
“It’s hard but you need to find time to grieve and it… it’s tough. Being a teenager is tough by itself.”
While the disasters are different, the needs of the youth of today are likely similar to those of the youth from the study. Following from this assertion, we can expect that the youth will lean on and be held in relationship to others as a means of mutual support. They will need informal and formal outlets for processing their experiences and healing from the trials of pandemic life. Finding work will also be a challenge for many, and accessing resources for school will be of greater need in the years to come. Youth are often hailed for their resilience, and rightly so, but that does not negate the reality that youth will need various supports to bounce back from this experience.
The importance of relationships
Whether describing their greatest supports or greatest challenges, the youth consistently spoke about their families, friends, partners, and even pets as a source of strength. Some relationships were strained and others changed over time. It became clear who was there for them in their time of need and who was not. The youth value those who can be present for them – to provide a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, financial support, a place to crash, or a space to visit with their friends. Some youth were able to be a supportive person for others:
“Some of my friends who felt close enough would reach out to me if they needed a place to stay.”
“I just had a campfire one night, so everybody got together and got to feel some companionship.”
With the ever-changing safety guidelines in mind, youth living through COVID-19 have had to significantly reduce their in-person social interactions, which has consequently reduced their opportunities for mutual peer support. The social isolation may be seen by many youth as the greatest challenge they faced during the pandemic. Even over the shorter duration of the flood experience, youth found the isolation from their peers challenging:
“I feel like it would have been better to have a space where we could all talk and converse… Just a place to share stories.”
As restrictions lift, the youth may be re-evaluating their relationships and prioritizing social gatherings. Some have become more reliant on virtual interactions than before, while others have found creative ways to see friends outside of their schools and homes. In the months to come, they will need spaces to gather and reconnect with peers in safe and supported environments. Specifically, youth may need structured support in navigating their changing peer or familial relations.
Providing support for youth
While the youth in the study did not utilize wellness supports themselves, they all noted that youth would benefit from having access to counsellors and psychologists. They recommended that health-care professionals need to find creative ways of connecting with the youth and letting them know what resources were available to them. They also felt that group settings or online options would be most appealing.
“I feel like there should have been, like therapists and psychologists at those evacuation centres, like right away.”
When we consider the experience of the pandemic, it is clear that no one has been left untouched by the present disaster. However, each person’s experience of it is unique. Youth will need space to share and process their experiences from the past year and a half, as well as having options for professional supports offered directly to them. Families, schools, and organizations working with youth should pro-actively seek out counselling and other mental-health related programming that could benefit the youth. Often youth know that supports exist, but do not know how to access them. Keeping open and honest communication about the challenges of living through a disaster can help to destigmatize the issues and normalize seeking support.
Employment challenges facing youth
During the post-flood cleanup, many youth had their hours cut back significantly or lost their employment due to business closures. Those who had sustainable employment reported that they appreciated having purposeful work during the summer months and being able to save money for school or to support themselves if they were living on their own. In many ways, they were a largely untapped labour force in the post-disaster recovery. Additionally, one youth expressed gratitude for receiving a scholarship earmarked for flood victims:
“My third year, I worked two jobs while in school…. But actually, I was lucky enough my first year of college they had a grant for flood victims.”
With the pandemic closures and restrictions of 2020 and 2021, the economy has been hard hit. Youth are seeing greater competition for employment and fewer opportunities than in years past. The prospect of finding a job, let alone meaningful work, is more abysmal than ever. With extended time at home, people have been tending to their yard work and home improvements themselves, potentially reducing the positions for summer employment. As businesses begin to open up, increase hours of operation, and cautiously increase staffing, it will be important to consider where youth can be utilized. Youth who are transitioning from high school may also need support in accessing bursaries and scholarship for further education, and in securing apprenticeships and co-operative learning positions. Again, people working in intermediary roles with youth can play a major role in supporting their needs – by approaching industry to provide bursaries and positions earmarked for youth.
Coming to terms with the “new normal”
The 2013 Alberta floods disrupted many events and plans that the youth had envisioned and prepared for as they transitioned into adulthood. Graduation, summer celebrations, travel, work, and other happenings were cancelled or changed completely. These sudden and often stark shifts created significant breaks between what the youth had anticipated and their lived realities. As Leaf Van Boven and Laurence Ashworth (2007) assert, the expectations of future positive events can heighten emotions and associations in ways that overshadow the event itself. For example, the replacement of an anticipated graduation ceremony with something “other” – such as a drive-thru graduation or online ceremony – can lead to long-term feelings of loss and regret, despite their gratitude for the efforts made to make the day special for them. As one youth explained:
“There was the effort made to make it as best as possible and I appreciate that. And I think it was – I think everyone felt a little bit disappointed.… It’s kind of like the tradition [to have grad in the park] and it was a bit weird not to. It was kind of disappointing not having that, to be honest with you. I find no fault with anyone, it’s just how things worked out.”
In the years to come, youth will look back on the pandemic with a range of emotions and associations that may be difficult to negotiate. They may feel loss, anger, grief, and remorse for various aspects of their lives that changed temporarily or permanently as a result of the worldwide disaster. Oftentimes, these experiences will go unexamined unless there is a purposeful space for the conversation to unfold. As one youth said:
“[I] didn’t really, didn’t overly feel affected from the flood until I… wrote this out and… put all the puzzle pieces together.”
The notion of the “new normal” refers to the reality that life cannot return to what we remembered, anticipated, or wished it to be. It just carries on, different than before. So much of the experience has been out of the youths’ control. Rules, safety precautions, closures, cancellations, and limitations abound. Youth will be looking for ways to assert their autonomy and reclaim power over their lives. Some of these options may be healthy, others may not be. As parents, educators, and people involved with youth, we need to be pro-active in our planning and programming. We need to invite the youth into dialogue – to listen to their experiences, learn about their needs, and support them as they live through the challenges of post-pandemic life.
First published in Education Canada, September 2021
Markides, J. (2020). Wisdom and well-being post-disaster: Stories told by youth [unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Calgary.
Van Boven, L., & Ashworth, L. (2007). Looking forward, looking back: Anticipation is more evocative than retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 136(2), 289–300.