When bad news happens

The fire in San Bruno, September 9th 2010

9 years ago this Saturday, I was woken by the phone ringing continuously. My grandma was on the other line, letting me know that my parents were ok, and that they told me not to worry – they’d get a hold of me when they could.

“What are you talking about???” I asked her.

“Go turn on your TV.”

For the next few hours I was glued to my television, just like the rest of America. And I watched fearfully as image after image showed different angles of the twin towers being hit by an airplane, eventually showing them as they crashed to the ground. Would we be next? Had war entered our country? Did we need to make a plan of escape should the worst happen on our side of the country? And what about my parents, who had chosen that very week to visit New York for their vacation? Would they really be ok?

At the time, my kids were too young to know what was going on. My son was only a baby, my daughter just 3 years old. My daughter asked what was going on, and I told her that some planes had crashed into a building. She sat with me and watched the images for awhile. And as I watched people jumping from buildings to their death, dust covered people running for cover, and images of planes repeatedly crashing into buildings, I became aware of the state of emergency on the television through her wide, innocent eyes.

Around the same time of year in 2005, Hurricane Katrina reared its ugly head and devastated the southern states, particularly Louisiana and Mississippi. Homes were leveled, signs all twisted up, boats eerily taking residence in the middle of abandoned streets. Some of the nation’s poorest were left without homes, food, or water. All they had were the clothes on their back. Heartbreaking video was captured of people standing on their roofs with as many belongings as they could save, surrounded by the flood that drowned their homes from the broken levies. Images of children, reminiscent of the children we see on commercials about third world countries, looked out at us with haunting eyes. And we watched as the devastating scene unraveled from an area of our country that had suffered from an angry act of god. My kids were now ages 3 and 6, and both were worried as the images took up the screen and entered our living room.

Yesterday, a devastating fire broke out in San Bruno. The television showed images of fireballs reaching astounding heights from a broken gas main. Homes were destroyed. Several people perished. The scenes were like those out of a movie, so unreal. Cameras scanned the scene to show areas of devastation, exhausted firemen fighting the burning inferno, and news stations played video seemingly on repeat as the whole city seemed to go up in flames. And at 9 and 12, my kids were fully aware of what was going on.

Kids are affected by the images of disasters we see on the television. But different ages react in different ways, and depending on the child. When my son was younger, he almost didn’t see the world around him. Images could be blowing up on the television, and he couldn’t tell the difference between reality and disasters shown in a movie. In his mind, none of it was real. My daughter, on the other hand, saw it all as very real. And images like those on TV when 9/11 happened worried her. Even though it was happening on the other side of the country, she felt like it was right in our own backyard. When I found her sitting next to me watching all the chaos going on in New York, I did the only thing I could do. I turned the TV off. And then we talked about the reality of the situation as best as a 3 year old could understand. At the time I wasn’t sure what was going on, or if we were even safe. But a toddler wants reassurance that they ARE safe. She wanted to know what was happening, and I gave her a very short description without getting into too many specifics. And I gave her the reassurance she needed – she was safe.

When the kids were older, conversations were able to expand more regarding devastating events in the world. When Hurricane Katrina happened, I limited the amount of TV images the kids were seeing. But I didn’t let them be ignorant of the situation either. We talked more about the people who were in need because of what they had lost, and the reality of crime on the rise due to the devastation. I didn’t let it consume our whole lives as we went about our day to day, but I used the event as a way to think about what we had, how lucky we were, and what could be done to help others in need.

At the age the kids are now, I don’t censor the images – though I still don’t have the images filling our living room through TV or the Internet. The fires in San Bruno have opened up discussions about what people have lost, and what we would do in this kind of situation. Many families didn’t even have a chance to think about it – the firemen were knocking on doors right and left telling people to get out NOW.

“What would you save?” I asked my daughter this morning.

“Whatever was closest to me, and I would get the heck out of there!” she said realistically.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, hurricanes, terrorist attacks….  When bad things happen, it’s all over the news.  But how much of it do we share with our kids?  At times, the images on the news may seem like something out of the movies. And while it’s important for kids to understand the reality of these events – a conversation with a 3 year old will look very different from the conversation you’d have with a 12 year old. You shouldn’t necessarily lie to your younger children regarding scary events, but it’s better to shield them from every detail of the truth so that they aren’t overcome with worry.

And as for the media? When the same images are filling your living room over and over, sensationalizing the trauma so that it’s bigger than life…sometimes it’s better just to turn it off.


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