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Preparation can help children cope with airport security

For children who are new to air travel, going through airport security can be an intimidating experience. For children who are new to air travel, going through airport security can be an intimidating experience. (David McNew/Getty Images/File)
By Paul Abercrombie
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2012
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Airport security can try the patience of even the most stoic adults. But for children - especially the youngest - it can be downright scary.

Hearing a friend’s horror story of how a recent family trip nearly did not happen because his child had a tantrum over surrendering a beloved blankie to the maw of an X-ray machine, I was reminded of a similar trauma in our family.

It was a handful of years ago when my now-9-year-old son, wife, and I were on our way to visit family in Los Angeles. My wife breezed through the walk-through X-ray. But when the same machine beeped as my son toddled through, a Transportation Security Administration agent asked for a do-over. Beep went the machine again. The same uniformed woman asked us to step aside for a pat-down inside a little glass-walled cage.

“The nice lady just needs to check our clothes to make sure we didn’t forget anything,’’ I explained to my son.

A minute turned to several. By now my son had spotted his mom, who had cleared security and was cheerfully waving to us.

“Mommy,’’ my son called, waving back. A glance at his face told me he was nowhere near as happy as his mom.

About that pat-down, I reminded the TSA agent. She said she was waiting for a male colleague, apparently because as a female she could not frisk us. No persuading her otherwise. I began to feel as if we were unfairly stuck in time-out.

A gruff male counterpart arrived 15 minutes later, and the pat-down turned into a wrestling match. My son, tearful and terrified, and I, by then closer to getting Tasered than I would like to admit, were finally reunited with a freaked-out mom.

I do not bring up this unpleasantness to criticize the TSA (there is plenty of that daily on the Internet). Rather, we and many parents we have commiserated with wish we had done more to prepare our youngsters for dealing with security.

The TSA posts tips for traveling with children on its website, though most tell what can and cannot be worn or carried through security (including such gems as “Passengers should NEVER leave babies in an infant carrier while it goes through the X-ray machine’’).

And while TSA spokesman Greg Soule told me “[the TSA] recommends parents talk with their children before the security checkpoint to explain the process,’’ the hows and whys were unclear.

For that I turned to Tampa child psychologist Stacey Scheckner. Among her tips for preparing young children for the weirdness of airport security:

■If it is the child’s first time in a plane, tell them how airplanes and airports work.

■Explain that, just like mommy and daddy, sometimes people in airports are grumpy. Some of these grumpy people can be policemen.

■Even if policemen are grumpy, we need to listen to what they say and do what they tell us to do because they want to make sure everyone gets on the plane. If they are not nice, we need to put ourselves in a happy bubble where we stay happy.

■Sometimes mommy and daddy do not know why the police do things but we know that they are doing their jobs to keep us safe.

■If children have their own backpacks and/or favorite stuffed animals or blankets, parents need to hold these before going on through security. You do not want these to be taken away from children. This can be especially traumatic.

■If your child is an anxious type, make sure stuffed animals “go night-night’’ safely in a parent’s bag before you get to security - preferably before you leave for the airport.

■Parents, stay calm. If you get frustrated, your children will pick up on it and feed off that anxiety.

■You probably know your child’s triggers for getting upset. Do not try to shush them because they will know you are anxious and fearful.

■Do not say please, please, please calm down or threaten punishment. Have a treat ready or, better yet, a distraction (a new, cheap toy, for example).

■Role-play with children. Several days or even weeks before your trip, take turns pretending you are the police or a TSA official. Use real bags, blankets, etc. Play grumpy and happy versions of TSA officials.

■Make sure children get a good night’s sleep before the trip.

■Pack as many snacks as possible. Cram in as many snacks as possible before you go through security. Make sure treats are not liquid - no yogurt, juice, etc. Of course, with rules changing almost daily, you will need to check with the airline as late as the day before you fly.

■If your child happens to bring up topics like planes blowing up, guns, or bombs, change the subject. Don’t tell them they cannot talk about such subjects.

Paul Abercrombie can be reached at paul@paulabercrombie.com.

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