Families Confront a Perilous World

By Ruth Laferla
New York Times
October 20, 2005

OLIVER SCHER, 14, knows exactly what to do when disaster strikes. He recites the drill as crisply as if he were reading from the Boy Scout manual.

"I'm to call my parents on my cellphone," said Oliver, who is in the ninth grade at the Trevor Day School in Manhattan. Should the cellphone fail, "then I'm to go back to the apartment," he said. "If that's safe, I would hope that my parents show up there. If they don't, for any reason, then I call a relative or friends."

He seems to find some comfort in that plan, as well he might. Just weeks ago Oliver was living with his parents in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. Forced to seek refuge in a downtown hotel, the Schers soon found themselves temporarily trapped by floodwaters without electricity or cellphone service. Eventually the family managed to rent a car, drive to Florida, book a flight to New York City and resettle on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It would be a stretch to say that the experience has left Oliver in constant fear. But the hurricane, coupled with a run of bleak news about other natural disasters, fears of an avian flu pandemic and a subway scare in New York, have certainly left him with a lingering unease.

"Lately there have been tons of disasters, and that's just kind of freaking me out a little bit," Oliver said. "It's not that I worry all the time, but I have mixed emotions. Sometimes I feel in the back of my head that everything in the world is sort of going downhill."

Many of his peers express the same anxieties these days. Still young enough to feel helpless at the prospect of a serious emergency but old enough to understand the stakes, they carry a nagging concern that calamity could shatter their lives at any time.

Such fears were seldom heard a half-dozen years ago, people who counsel teenagers say. "It used to be that kids talked about bullies," said Flora Colao, a clinical social worker in New York who treats troubled teenagers. "Now they're saying: 'What if something terrible happens? What if I can't get home? What if my family can't get home?' " They frequently paint fantasies of a terrorist attack, Ms. Colao said, asking, " 'What if they fly a plane into my building?' "

Only the most troubled adolescent voiced such worries a few years ago, she said. "Now that number has jumped to 25 or 30 percent."

Teenagers' fears seem to be escalating partly because they are becoming more attentive to news reports, according to groups that study adolescent behavior. In a recent online survey of 13- to 18-year-olds by Teenage Research Unlimited, 82 percent said they had seen coverage of Katrina on television, and close to 63 percent said they discussed the tragedy with family or friends.

The closer to home the disaster, the more emotional is their response, said Rob Callender, the trends director for the company. "They may have been shocked and horrified by the tsunami, but they were probably more concerned about the hurricanes, because this was a tragedy within the United States with an obvious human face to it."

These teenagers are worrying about their security precisely in a phase of life in which, at least according to conventional wisdom, they should be carefree and beginning to spread their wings. "People of my age are really just starting to branch out from their parents," said Eli Mailey, 18, a part-time construction worker in East Berlin, Pa. "We feel invincible and want to show our independence. Something going wrong is usually not the first thing on our minds."

Memories of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 still rattle some teenagers, and few need to have fallen in harm's way themselves to feel anxious. Katharine Schub, 17, said it was the subway bombings in London last summer, combined with the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, that jolted her out of her complacency.

"Maybe the East Coast is no more safe than rest of the world, but at least before I could pretend," said Katharine, a senior at the James I. O'Neill High School in Highland Falls, N.Y. She began to doubt her safety when, in response to the London bombings, the police in New York City, where she attends art classes, increased security in the subway. "Seeing those policeman underground got me really scared," Katharine said. "I could not block it out."

Nor could she and her friends suppress a nervous gallows humor when Hurricane Rita arrived so quickly on the heels of Katrina last month. "We were all saying, 'The world's going to end,' " Katharine recalled. "Mostly we were joking, but in the back of your mind, you were thinking, 'That could happen here.' "

Jason Pappas, 16, an 11th grader at Manasquan High School in New Jersey, said, "Lately the possibility of disaster in my own life is on my mind a lot."

"My worst fear, " he said, "is probably of losing or being separated from family members."

That preoccupation only intensified recently when flooding forced some of his neighbors in Spring Lake, N.J., to evacuate their homes. And it gathered momentum when he heard his parents discussing with neighbors a possible outbreak of avian flu.

"Now the bird flu is what I talk about with other kids outside of school - how it's supposed to spread," Jason said.

His worries tend not to interfere with his day-to-day activities, he said, but they have darkened his outlook. "I get the feeling that we're going to have to live with these kinds of fears for the rest of our lives," Jason said.

Some teenagers appear to have internalized their parents' anxieties. Lisa Scher, Oliver's mother, said that after their ordeal in New Orleans, she tried to instill in her son a cautionary precept. As she put it in an interview, "It's what you don't plan for that is liable to happen."

Some families are discussing emergency readiness with their children. "You want to feel prepared," said Debbie Irwin, 47, a voice-over artist living in downtown Manhattan. "For us, that feeling exists on a continuum with the issues at one end revolving around the kids' personal safety, in terms of riding their bikes around the city or being out late at night, and at the other around that hypothetical megathreat, that feeling of what could happen to us if something major should occur?"

Ms. Irwin said she recently had a talk with her son, Josh, 15. "You've got to travel with identification," she said she told him. "If something happens, how are we going to find out if you got hurt?"

She is conflicted, though, about how much to explain. "There is a fine line between wanting to talk about these things and just not wanting to raise the level of anxiety," Ms. Irwin said.

Ms. Colao, the social worker, said that discussing emergency contingency plans can be reassuring for teenagers as they negotiate the slippery path from adolescence to adult autonomy. Taking safety precautions "becomes part of what eases their anxiety," she said. Ms. Irwin's daughter Emily, 13, is a case in point. Still haunted by 9/11 - she attended a public school in downtown Manhattan and saw the World Trade Center collapse - Emily carries a cellphone with her at all times, she said.

"If there is a lot of commotion going on outdoors, I will just have it in my hand walking down the street," Emily said. She keeps her thumb on the dial pad, "just in case," she said. "My mother is on my speed dial. I can just press 2."

Recently she enrolled with her mother in a self-defense class at a jujitsu center.

"I'm not actually going to use the moves I've learned," Emily said, "but I'll be glad just to have the confidence to walk down the street and know how to present myself if something should happen."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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