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How to explain body scanners and pat downs to children


I am taking my family, including my nine-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son, on a vacation out of the country. What is the best way to explain the concept of body scanners and “pat downs” to them. I want them to be prepared so they are not taken by surprise if it happens but am not sure what to say.

Dr. Pat responds

Just this week on my way to Norway, I went through a body scanner and a pat down at two different airports. In Canada, I stepped on a mat and, by chance, it pointed me to the more intense security check. In England, I don't know why I was chosen. I found the pat down uncomfortable. But we have no choice. If we are travelling by air, we may be subjected to these security processes.

Preparation of children for these procedures involves three issues:

  • timing of preparation
  • explanation of procedures
  • role playing of procedures

The timing is hard to know. For children aged 9 and 11 years, you could do it days before or a few hours before. You will be the best judge. Just before is better if your child will stew for a long time and work themselves up. On the other hand, some children need time to think things through. For children under 4 years, i would not suggest preparation. Just handle it at the airport when it happens.

My preference is to tell the whole truth in your explanation. There may be signs explaining it that your children will read.

You might say things like:

  • Security scanning helps make us all safe. There have been people who have tried to bring knives, guns, or bombs onto planes. We have no choice. If we want to fly, we have to go through security screening.
    We will have to take all metal things out of our pockets and put anything we take on the plane through an X-ray machine. If the security staff see something they don't understand, they will have to go through our stuff. They may wipe our stuff with a little cloth on a stick and put that cloth in a machine. The machine tells if there has been bomb material around. We will have to take our coats and sweaters off. We may have to take our shoes off.
  • We will have to walk through a metal detector.
  • We may have to walk through a body scanner. Some people are chosen just by chance to do this. Some people are chosen because they set off the metal detector. The body scanner can see through our clothes to make sure we have no knives, guns, or bombs. The genitals (private parts or whatever your family calls them) are made fuzzy so they are not seen. The picture is viewed in another room.
  • We may have to be "patted down." Again, it is just by chance for some. Sometimes, people are chosen because they have set off the metal detector.
  • In some but not all airports, we can request a pat down in a private area. It will delay the process.
  • If we have to be patted down, a woman will pat down the girls and a man will pat down boys. They will check your arms and body and legs. They will ask you to undo your belt and will check around the waistband. No one really likes this but it helps to keep us all safe. They won't touch your private parts but they will touch all over the rest of your body to make sure you have no knives, guns, or bombs. We have no choice if we are going to fly.
  • These security checks only take a few minutes. Then we can go to the plane feeling safe that no one who is dangerous will be let on the plane.

Role playing or practicing can be helpful. Pretend you are the security person and actually go through the process. Go through the bags that your children will carry on. Actually do a pat down so that they know what it will be like. The mother should pat down the girls and the father should pat down the boys. Maybe they can do a pat down on you or your partner.

Explain that pat downs are OK only during a security check at the airport. They are not OK in any other circumstance.

Emphasize that these security measures make planes safe. Millions of people go on planes and they are safer than going in a car. Emphasize that you have no choice. The security people must do what they do. No objections, no crying or protesting will change what they do.

Security at airports is not going to go away. Part of growing up is learning how to tolerate these procedures.

Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC is a clinical psychologist and a researcher. He is Professor of Psychology, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University and Vice President - Research at IWK Health Centre in Halifax. He is also the CEO of the Strongest Families Institute, which provides mental health care to families across Canada.

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Dr. Pat will respond to as many letters as possible with evidence-based answers. We hope that the column will be interesting and helpful for readers; however, Dr. Pat cannot provide health care through the column. Please contact a physician or other registered health care professional to provide health care guidance or advice.