TSA Pat Downs - How to Talk With Your Kids

This is a guest post by Sarina Behar Natkin, a Parent Educator and Consultant in the Seattle area. Sarina has very generously shared some of her best advice about how you can help your kids understand the process of going through TSA security at the airport, the new backscatter imaging devices, and TSA's enhanced pat downs.

Toddler reading the Airplane Safety Manual
Toddler reading the Airplane Safety Manual

The new TSA airport screening measures are creating a great deal of anxiety for parents. Many parents are not willing to use the new body scanners until we know more about whether they are safe for kids. The other option, the full body pat down, is creating just as much fear and anxiety in parents.

We are so careful to teach our children that their body is their own and that they do not have to be touched by anyone they do not want to be touched by. So what do we tell them now?

This is a conversation to have at a time when we are calm and have the time to really be present. The conversation should be short and in very simple terms.

Here is what I would say:

  • For our safety, we need to be checked at the airport to make sure everything we bring with us is safe.
  • Some people may bring things that are unsafe and the airport must check us pretty close.
  • There are two options- a scan like an x-ray or someone feeling our body to make sure we don't have anything unsafe under our clothes. They have to do these things to everyone even though we know we do not have anything unsafe with us.
  • We are concerned about the scanning machine, because it is really new and we don't know much about it. So for now, we are going to be checked by hand.
  • This is one of those times that it is ok to be touched, like when mommy or daddy or the doctor touches your body to check and make sure everything is ok.
  • I will be here with you and if anything feels uncomfortable to you, please tell me.

On the day of travel, be sure to:

  • Remind your child what will happen when you get to security.
  • Go through security, do your very best not to project your own anxiety outward. If we are calm, our children are more likely to be as well.
  • Afterwards, I would just do a very brief check in. Was that ok for you? don't press it if they don't respond.

As always, leave the door open for more conversation.

Our own anxiety in this situation is a big predictor of how our children make meaning of the experience. This means taking care of ourselves to keep our own anxiety in check.

  • Leave yourselves lots of time. Being rushed will only make it more stressful and scary.
  • Allow yourself to change your mind if you feel like the other option might be better at that time.
  • Be careful how we talk to and interact with TSA in front of our kids.

This is new for all of us parents just as it is for our kids. You can tell your kids that too! It makes it a learning process for all. As we know more about the possible health risks of the scanner and hopefully get some protections in place for the pat downs, hopefully this will become less scary for all of us.

Here's more about Sarina: Sarina Behar Natkin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Gottman Educator and Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator with over 15 years of experience helping families. She currently provides parent education and consulting in the Seattle area.

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  1. Sara on November 18, 2010 at 3:29 p.m.

    Just wanted to add that my understanding from NPR's interview with the head of the TSA is that they will not be doing the full body pat downs on children under 12. Hopefully, that will ease some fears....

  2. Juan on November 18, 2010 at 3:50 p.m.

    How about simply not subjecting your children to molestation from the low-paid, under-trained drones?

  3. Debbie on November 18, 2010 at 6:44 p.m.

    @Sara I didn't hear the NPR interview, but here's an excerpt from the TSA website

    Myth: All children will receive pat-downs.
    Fact: TSA officers are trained to work with parents to ensure a respectful screening process for the entire family, while providing the best possible security for all travelers. Children 12 years old and under who require extra screening will receive a modified pat down.

    here's the link: http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/11/tsa-myth-...

  4. Ben Simon on November 18, 2010 at 7:40 p.m.

    To add on to what Debbie said in her comment, it's worth checking out the complete Myths vs Facts post from TSA (http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/11/tsa-myth-...)

    Consider their answer about the safety of AIT:

    ""Backscatter technology is safe for all passenger and has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institute for Standards and Technology and Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. ... A person receives more radiation naturally each hour than from one screening with a backscatter unit. In fact a traveler is exposed to less radiation from one AIT scan than from 2 minutes of an airline flight.""

  5. Doug on November 18, 2010 at 9:32 p.m.

    "Honey, when the man in the uniform touches the tops of your legs, remember the lessons about strangers and scream. Keep screaming until he stops and moves away from you."

  6. SMC on November 19, 2010 at 6:48 a.m.

    Thanks for continuing posts in this vein, Debbie!

    I guess I'm warped, but even before backscatter, I practiced a (very) light pat down with my then 3-yr old in case there *was* a pat-down. This was when they were taking people aside to do additional screening before flying into the US and not letting people get up to use the facilities before landing, and some parents did say their very young children had been subject to pat downs. I figured there would be lots of squirms, "that tickles!" and other reactions to a pat down that might be hugely TSA non-compliant, so I set up a pretend security screening area at home so we could practice the whole routine of taking off shoes, relinquishing stuff, etc. For me the point was to convey that there could be a next step in the process, and how to stand, etc. We (and our whole flight) did undergo screening including pat downs (in another country) but they did not pat down my child, which was a relief. I don't want to tell my child that this whole procedure is the "right" thing but I also don't want to be detained because the screening wasn't successful; at this (still young) stage it's more about understanding what might happen and how to conduct yourself.

    Still worried about what to do for upcoming January trip; hope more readers will post their experiences with their children.

  7. Tony on November 19, 2010 at 9:24 a.m.

    The TSA has zero authority to pat down anyone, much less a child. They are not Law Enforcement, and they have no probable cause to touch anyone. It's a clear infringement of constitutional rights. Most of us have conditioned our children to know that it's not okay when a stranger touches them. But now we say it's okay because we're going on a plane. Most kids, depending in their age, can not rationalize what the purpose of a pat down is. All they know is that some stranger is touching them.

    If this were to happen anywhere else but an airport, Social Services would be called, an investigation would ensue, and the person doing the pat down on the child would likely be in jail.

    The TSA has NEVER thwarted a terrorist attack, NEVER. Their presence is nothing more than theater. Those of you who take part in it are responsible for the systematic deconstruction of our rights.

  8. Todd Palino on November 19, 2010 at 9:29 a.m.

    Oh, and Ben, be careful about that information about backscatter X-Ray. I haven't gone into this in detail yet to try and determine where the truth is, but it has been said that TSA's statement on the amount of radiation is incorrect because they are basing it on full-body exposure (as far as mass) whereas backscatter is all absorbed by the skin (a much lower amount of tissue). And it is cumulative. So, for example, they would be saying that the dose of X rads over a mass of 180 lbs. of tissue is the equivalent of 2 minutes of airline flight. But the actual dose is X rads over a mass of 18 lbs. of tissue. I suggest reading what the doctors and UCSF had to say about this - http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/0...

  9. Nicole on November 19, 2010 at 10:01 a.m.

    I am really glad to be seeing so many parents commenting and standing up for their children's rights. I believe the new "scanning machine" and "enhanced pat down" is a violation of our 4th amendment rights.

    I have taught my children that is it not okay for anyone at any time to touch them where they are uncomfortable or within their genitalia. TSA is not any different; they are not law enforcement and they do not have a search warrant.

    From the many stories which have already come out; it appears these "pat downs" are the definition of sexual assault (although I am not an attorney).

    My children and I have been discussing this; but I have not been rationalizing it to them. I have told them they have rights and if at any time they are uncomfortable to scream or to tell or to tell the person to stop touching them and I will step in. My next action will be to request law enforcement and to file an official report.

  10. Teaspoon on November 19, 2010 at 10:14 a.m.

    Um, no. I've told my son that these searches are a violation of our constitutional rights and our rights to decide who does or does not touch us, and I've explained that we will not be flying commercially so long as these procedures are being used.

    The TSA site should not be used to determine what the actual procedures are, because there are numerous documented examples of TSA employees not following those procedures as outlined. Furthermore, it's not any more okay for a TSA agent to sexually molest my child of 14 than it is for them to molest my child of 8, even if they could all be trusted to use a "modified" pat-down of the younger children.

    Parents who are not comfortable with the pat-down but okay with the scanners should be aware that TSA statements that passengers have the option of choosing either the scanner or the pat-down are not true -- if your child moves or is unable to follow instructions during the scan, they will then be subjected to the pat-down. That is not an option -- that is pretending to give you a choice but potentially subjecting you to both "options" anyway.

  11. Brian on November 19, 2010 at 10:28 a.m.

    I don't agree with this advice at all!

    Personally, I plan on teaching my son that it is not acceptable for his Fourth Amendment rights to be violated in this way, and that he should lead by example. No WAY am I going to allow him to be passive in the face of such bullying!

    We all would prefer to avoid having our children become upset, all else being equal. But, the kinds of lessons we teach at a young age will last a lifetime, and to teach them that any of this is "OK" is to set them up for a lifetime of being a mere doormat in the face of authority. What we should be doing is teaching our children to be thinkers and to challenge that which is unjust. It may make for an inconvenient trip or two in the recent times ahead, but the life lessons and the consistency of the examples we set, are worth it.

  12. Debbie on November 19, 2010 at 11:04 a.m.

    Thanks for all the great comments. Just a reminder to please keep the discussion civil and focused on the topic of the post!


  13. Sadie on November 19, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    I can appreciate the intent behind this post and its advice, but since I think it's wrong for a TSA agent to grope me, then it can never be OK for an agent to grope my child. I can't tell him that "this is one of those times that it's OK" because it ISN'T ok. My son is only 17 months old, so I plan to not say anything to him about security before we get there. I'll take the advice to stay calm to heart and hopefully it won't be too traumatic for him.

    We'll fly for Christmas travel because my parents haven't seen their grandson in a year, but after that we're done with air travel unless security measures are revised.

  14. Sarina Natkin on November 19, 2010 at 12:37 p.m.

    Hello- I know this is a really hot issue. I want to be clear, I am not advocating choosing one screening method over the other, nor am I condoning pat downs of children. My intent was to give parents some idea of how to even address this issue if they are going to refuse scanners and may end up in a situation where their child receives a pat down.

    In order to model how we should talk to young children, I kept the discussion about the facts and not about the moral or ethical issues these new screening measures bring up. If you have an older child or teenager, the conversation might look quite different.

    Each parent must judge for themselves what their ethic is around this and how they want to convey that to their children in an age appropriate way. Our children learn from our actions, so stand behind your word and be ok with your child modeling the same behavior as you in other situations. If your child is old enough to understand the difference between objecting on moral grounds to authority because it is wrong for society vs. objecting to authority because you don't like the rule or law, your options are greater for how you discuss the issue.

    It might be helpful to do some reading about Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development to get an understanding of where your child is at in terms of moral development and what might be an age appropriate way to approach this issue.

    It is great to see parents talking about this and considering all of the implications of our parenting decisions in this case.

  15. Scott McMurren on November 22, 2010 at 10:17 a.m.

    Great post, Debbie. The TSA is doing all the wrong things for the right reasons--and that is a subject for protracted discussion and action. But these helpful tips for parents to children provide solid assistance. It's tough for me to keep a straight face telling kids about this, because the whole "security theater" thing is wrong, wrong, wrong. But we're all travelers...and we have to be prepared.

  16. Debbie on November 22, 2010 at 10:32 a.m.

    You're right Scott - I don't agree with the new regulations either. For a number of reasons. But it simply isn't an option for us to stop flying, so I need to let my protest take other forms, and I need to keep my kids out of it.

  17. Aaron on November 23, 2010 at 6:54 a.m.

    It occurs to me that these new measures may be the only way that the TSA could genuinely identify a threat (e.g. concealed device) and the process they've used up until this point has merely been a waste or effort - a position I have long held. Having said that, it seems that we've reached a point tatamount to martial law on all airport grounds. I don't know if it makes sense, but it is saddening (or maddening).