Preparing Children for First-Time Air Travel

A lot of information is out there on how to fly with babies and toddlers — keeping them amused during flights, bringing snacks, how to deal with mid-flight tantrums, etc. But few places even mention how you can — and should — prepare your older child ahead of time for flying and for the airport experience. Navigating a crowded terminal, enduring lengthy lines and going through TSA screening can be intimidating for children old enough to be aware of their surroundings.

Behavioral issues caused by anxiety can often be avoided by simply preparing a child for the experience. You don’t have to go into stories of terrorist attacks to explain to children security screening is to be sure people don’t bring dangerous things on the airplane and that TSA agents are there to keep everyone safe.

Know the drill yourself so you can explain it to your child. While some of the same rules apply to kids, several are different. Children 12 and under can leave their shoes and light jackets, but it’s best if teens don’t wear heavy boots, which they might be asked to remove. Children will not be separated from you, but except for infants and very young children (whom you can carry through), they will be expected to walk through the metal detector alone. Assure them you are right behind them, able to see them at all times and they should wait on the other side.

The same rules about metals apply to children — they need to remove watches, belts with metal buckles, jewelry and everything from their pockets. Children older than 13 will be treated as adults. Older children and teens who have never flown before need preparation, too, especially those old enough to pack their own luggage. They need to follow the same rules as you do about contents of carry-on luggage and backpacks. (You might suggest packing underwear and personal items on the bottom in case their luggage is opened; our teenager was quite embarrassed when hers was opened to expose her neatly packed underwear to the world!)

Seeing a beloved friend disappear unexpectedly into a big dark hole can get any kid off to a bad start at security, so be sure to prepare young children that their favorite teddy bear or blanket will have to go through the X-ray and that it won’t hurt a bit. Teddy is just going for a ride and will be waiting at the other side. Some larger airports have special family security lanes; ask a security officer if one is available.

Getting through security isn’t the only thing your children should be prepared for; keeping track of them in a busy airport can be a challenge of its own. It helps if kids understand before they arrive the airport may be crowded, people are often hurrying with luggage and may not be looking where it’s rolling, and that it’s important to stay together. That way when you have to take your eyes off them to look for signs or deal with luggage, they are less likely to wander off. And as in any crowded place, you should discuss what they should do if they can’t see you (stay right where they are until you return for them — if they don’t move, you’ll know where to find them).