You've arrived at the airport and have somehow managed to drag your unwilling toddler through security. Though harrowing, you made it through with all your belongings and no strip search—a total win. Your child has trudged along slowly, insisting on towing their kid-sized suitcase on their own, marveling at the crowds of people.
You make it to your gate and settle into a seat with a view out the window, welcoming your little one to stare out the window. Minutes later, you board the plane and buckle up for a wild ride. As your plane takes off down the runway and begins ascending into the air, your scared child in your lap screams, matching the roar of the engines.
If your family vacation starts with a scenario like this, then this is the article for you! We will give you 3 proven steps to help your child overcome their fear of flying and make flying more enjoyable.
The best thing you can do for your child to best prepare them for flying is to walk them through exactly what will be happening. Of course, how you deliver this information will vary per age range. Here are some examples per age group:
Obviously, a baby doesn't necessarily have the cognition/development to understand what's happening. Instead of focusing on the flight itself, focus on things that make your baby comfortable. Make sure any blanket or toy they are fond of is within close reach. Try to make their immediate surroundings on the plane as homey as possible.
You can also book seats where you can utilize a bassinet for your young one. Feed your baby immediately after boarding so their tummy is full and they're sleepy—if they can sleep through takeoff they won't be awake for the pain they may feel with the pressure change. Above all, your baby looks to you for comfort. If you are not calm, they will not be either.
Jean Piaget (a pioneer in child psychology) refers to toddler-hood as the beginning of the "Preoperational stage". Children begin to develop the ability to utilize their imagination—this is your key. Build your child an airplane out of cardboard boxes.
Help them board their makeshift plane, buckle their seatbelt, and get comfy. Pretend you are a flight attendant and familiarize them with common occurrences during a flight. Go over the noises an airplane will make: the roar of the engine, the landing gears opening or closing, the screeching noises of landing.
Let them know that turbulence is normal and that the plane may shake sometimes, and it's just part of the experience. You know that their ears may hurt when you take-off, so be prepared with their favorite snack for them to munch on to (this moves their jaw and eases the popping). Taking your child through a car wash can be a way to familiarize them with some of the loud noises and experiences associated with flying.
If you haven't flown with your child by the time they've reached this age, that's okay! Some of the previous ideas will still work. They can watch movies or cartoons that introduce flying in positive ways. Find them coloring books that show in detail the interior and exterior of an airplane, as well as the pilots, flight attendants, etc.
You can also check with a flight attendant to see if they would be willing to grab the pilot for a quick meet and greet. Sometimes simply meeting the pilot is a great way to put your child at ease. They may even get their very own airline wings to pin on their shirt from the pilot. Keep these things in mind:
DO: Ask your child if they have any questions about your upcoming air travel. Do your best to answer their questions and give your child a chance to speak about any anxieties they might have.
DO NOT: influence your child with your own fears and concerns related to flying. Just like in adults, having the chance to discuss thoughts, feelings and emotions are often extremely therapeutic for children with flying anxieties. Fear in children is often from the unknown, so make sure yours has the opportunity to bring up anything that is causing them concern.
This is an oldie but a goody. Just like in other situations where you are trying to calm a child, distracting and/or comforting is often just what they need. Hug them, give them a treat, sing a song or play a game; strategies that work off the plane will often work on it.
I have a friend who recently embarked on a 4-hour flight with her toddler. She left armed with new books, fun phone games, and movies on a tablet. She also said to pack their favorite (and time-consuming) snacks for the adventure.
Let your flight attendant know that this is your child's first time flying and ask if they have any time-proven methods of easing anxiety. They are well-trained professionals, and typically have experience in customer care with all ages. They come by your row and offer juice and snacks. Sometimes, they pop in more frequently to interact with your child and ask questions. A good flight attendant can make a world of difference.
Though we touched on this earlier, it is important enough to emphasize again: if you exhibit fear, your child will also be afraid. Children take their cues from you in all aspects of life. If you experience a fear of flying yourself, address it so that you can lead your child by example by remaining calm. Our guide on overcoming the fear of flying is a great resources (if we do say so ourselves).
We recognize that there are instances during air travel where you will hit turbulence or poor weather and things just aren't going as planned. Obviously, we don't expect you to be a stoic statue. Repeat this to your child (and yourself!): Turbulence is a normal part of flying and our experienced pilots will keep us safe. This is always a good time to utilize some of those distractions we talked about earlier.
As miserable as your flight may be with your screaming and terrified child, is medication truly an option to make the experience manageable? Here's the general research-based consensus:
*PLEASE NOTE: This is based on personal research on established medical consensus. However, we would NEVER recommend administering any medications to your child without first consulting a physician*
Fear, Flying, and Your Child - an Educational Opportunity
Despite your best efforts, your child may still feel some level of fear and anxiety with regards to flying. At every opportunity, you should reassure your child that feeling this way is normal, and that they are not "bad" or "wrong" for being scared.
Ultimately, every activity in life carries some degree of risk along with it. While you may not be able to convey this idea to your young children, you can certainly go a long way towards soothing their fears about flying.
Wings for Autism
This is a program that is offered at some airports that allows parents with children on the Autism spectrum and those with intellectual disabilities to practice everything associated with flying. You can enter the airport and obtain a boarding pass, go through security, and practice boarding the plane. It is also a training opportunity for TSA officers and flight attendants. Go to this website to see if this service is offering at your local airport.
Fear of flying help for children can also be found in therapy. This is also a common and effective option, and you can check with local counseling centers to find a provider that works with anxiety in children.
SensaCalm offers a full line of weighted blankets and fun weighted animals that help relieve stress and promote rest. Give one of these products a try the next time you fly!