How to Get Your Kid Through the TSA ‘Pat-Down’ With Little Trauma

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We’ve seen the videos of screaming young children being subjected to the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) aggressive new pat-downs. For a young child, especially one who has been told that strangers touching them in private places is taboo, the pat-down can be terrifying. So here are a few tips for getting your tyke through airport security as painlessly as possible this holiday season.

TIME asked Dr. Craig S. Fabrikant, the former chief of psychology at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, for advice both for parents and for the TSA. How can we get kids to feel comfortable with a procedure that in any other situation would be considered invasive? Fabrikant says, take a clue from the doctor’s office. (More on TSA Outrage: Would You Rather Get Screened or Blown Up?)


Doctors and TSA agents now have something in common: they both have to perform invasive examinations of children to help prevent scary consequences — disease and terrorist attacks, respectively. But unlike doctors, TSA officers have not been specifically trained to deal with children.

One tip for both the TSA and parents: “A little bit of explanation of what’s going to happen before it happens could go a long way,” says Fabrikant. “Think of medical procedures. If a kid is getting an MRI, we say ‘O.K., we’re going to put you in this machine, it’s going to make a loud noise,’ etc. You know — you prep your kids.”

Fabrikant says that talking and joking throughout the procedure can also alleviate tension. (More on Should We Worry About Radiation Exposure From New Airport Scanners?)


Go first, says Fabrikant, to parents: “How do you get a kid to eat something? You take a taste first so they know it’s safe.” If your kid is getting a secondary screening, opt into the screening as well and ask to go first. Once a child sees Mom or Dad feeling fine post-search, they’re likely to feel fine about it as well.

And despite widespread rumors to the contrary, the TSA clearly states: “Anyone has the right to have a traveling companion present during screening in the private screening area.” That means a parent can stand next to a child as he or she is screened, a big divergence from the portrayal of TSA procedures in videos across the country.

Limit Terrorism Talk

Keep it age-appropriate. “For a lot of kids, it’s going to be the first time they hear about [terrorism] and it can instill fear and stress in some kids. Maybe it’s better to be vague: ‘Some bad people try to sneak dangerous things on planes, but we don’t and they just need to check and make sure.’ Stuff like that,” says Fabrikant. (More on The Business of Weird: Why People Pay for Bizarre Experiences)

Ultimately, Fabrikant believes that the pat-down does not have to be a traumatic experience as long as parents have prepared their children and TSA agents are able to react well to children. “There’s nothing sexual about it — I think everyone needs to lighten up a bit,” he says.

That goes for adult passengers and TSA officers themselves: an informal survey conducted by travel consultant and photojournalist Steven Frischling revealed that many officers who have to conduct the new pat-downs find them demoralizing and humiliating, not least because of the response they get from travelers. One officer said:

I come to work to do my job. It is not up to me to decide policy, it is up to me to carry out my duties as dictated by the Transportation Security Administration. When a person stands in front of me and calls me a pervert or accuses me of molesting them it is disheartening. People fail to understand that neither of us are happy about the intrusive pat down I am carrying out.  I am polite, I am professional and while someone may not like what I have to carry out, they came to me because they choose not to utilize the alternative and less invasive method of security at my airport.

Which is a good point: often, the pat-down is a voluntarily chosen alternative to the much less invasive whole-body imaging machines, which people are continuing to eschew for reasons of privacy and fear of radiation.

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