Airport security can try the patience of even the most stoic adults. But for young children, it can be downright scary.
Hearing a friend's horror story of how a recent family trip nearly didn't 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 travel trauma in our family.
It was a handful of years ago when my son, who was 5, my wife and I were on our way from Tampa 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 TSA 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.
A minute turned to several. By now my son had spotted his mom, who'd already 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. The TSA agent said she was waiting for a male colleague, apparently because as a female she couldn't frisk us.
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'd like to admit, were finally reunited with a freaked-out mom.
I don't bring up this unpleasantness to slag the TSA (plenty of that daily on the Internet). Rather, we and many parents we've commiserated with wish we'd done more to prepare our youngsters — and ourselves — for dealing with airport security.
TSA posts tips for traveling with children on its website, though most tell what can and can't 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 an adventure through airport security:
• If it's the child's first time in a plane, tell him 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 police officers, but we still need to listen to what they say. We do what they tell us to do, because they want to make sure everyone gets on the plane.
• Tell your children that you don't know why the police do certain things but that they are doing their jobs to keep travelers safe.
• Make sure your children put blankets, stuffed animals and backpacks on the moving belt. You don't want these to be taken away from kids. This can be especially traumatic. As you know, stuffed animals are real to kids, so you don't want a TSA official to take it from their hands.
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• If your child is an anxious type, pack stuffed animals away before you get to security — preferably before you leave for the airport.
• Stay calm. If you get frustrated, your kids will pick up on it and feed off that anxiety.
• You probably know your child's triggers for getting upset. Don't try to shush them, because they'll know you're anxious and fearful.
• Don't 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 kids. Several days or even weeks before your trip, take turns pretending you're the police or a TSA official. Use real bags, blankets, etc. Play grumpy and happy versions of TSA officials.
• Make sure kids get a good night's sleep before the trip.
• Pack snacks. Cram in as many snacks as possible before you go through security. Make sure treats aren't liquid — no yogurt, juice, etc. Of course, with rules changing frequently, you'll 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 can't talk about such subjects.
• If siblings have a good chance of quarreling on the way through security, separate them beforehand.
Paul Abercrombie is a freelance writer in Tampa and author of "Organic, Shaken and Stirred: Hip Highballs, Modern Martinis, and Other Totally Green Cocktails" (Harvard Common Press) and the ebook "Sublime Bloody Marys: 10 Boozy Ways to Greet the Day" (Hang Time Press).