Helping children with flight anxiety
Flight anxiety in children – what can you do?!
I have been a flight attendant for over 15 years. I’m also a sleep coach for children and a mum myself. So I guess I do know a thing or two about airplanes and I’m still learning lots and lots about children – which I love to do.
I had many passengers with flight anxiety or sometimes even plain fear of airplanes and flying. I felt especially sorry for children which were terrified of flying and had a hard time on board. Some suffered the whole flight and their parents suffered with them, completely unsure how to help their child.
Sometimes it helped a little when I could talk to the child, reassuring him and explaining all the noises and movements the airplane makes. In some occasions the child was even allowed to see the cockpit and meet the captain. But this of course is not always the case.
So what can YOU do, to help your child overcome anxiety and fear of airplanes?!
Preparation / Empower you child
Talking to your child about the flight ahead of time, and telling them what will happen can help with anxiety. For some kids it’s good if you go into some detail: tell them that you will board the plane, find your seat, sit down, and then put on your seat belts. Try to describe what happens at take off and landing too, so that these things don’t come as a complete surprise. Reading books, or watching movies about airplanes can help with preparation too.
Visualize the details of the flight. As the day of your flight draws near, it may be helpful to conduct a “walk-through” of the process to come — the sights, the sounds, the experience of getting onto a plane and flying. For younger children who have not flown before in particular, the uncertainty about what to expect can often be a major source of flight anxiety
You can even role-play what will happen when you arrive at the airport or when you board the airplane.
Let the child have different roles to play. When you enter the plane, remember your child how you role-played the situation and what each person’s job was, tell him to see how the flight crew are doing their job.
Keep your child busy and distracted so he can not worry too much about his fears. For example, create a chart or to do list, which he has to tick off. It could include items such as: give the boarding pass to the man or woman at the gate, greet the flight attendant at the entrance of the airplane, find your seat, stow away your luggage, have a look where your life vest is, hear the captains announcement (what was his name?), etc. With smaller children use a picture chart.
This way the whole experience will be more like a game and not as frightening.
Ask questions about your child’s flight fears
Talking to your child about his or her fears will not make them worse, and it is the first step toward empowering your child to overcome the anxiety. Don’t interrogate your child, but feel free to ask probing questions about the sources and specifics of the fear of flying.
A child’s fear of flying often boils down to one of the following: an inability to conceive of how a heavy airplane can remain in the air; a fear of enclosed spaces and/or being limited in what you can do when you want to do it; bad prior experiences, or tales of bad experiences from others; media reports of plane crashes, air security threats, or bad flight experiences.
Probe into the causes of the fear by validating and empathizing with it: “The first time I flew, I was terrified that the plane would fall out of the sky. What do you think about that?” Make educated guesses based on your observations: “I’ve noticed that you get uncomfortable in crowded spaces, like the subway car that one time. Is that something that bothers you about an airplane?” Or, simply give them an invitation to talk: “Tell me what you think about our airplane trip that’s coming up.”
The more specific information you know about the nature of your child’s flying fears, the more specific your approach to dealing with it can be.
Offer information on how planes fly
Fear of the unknown can be very powerful, and when that unknown includes all the sounds, sights, smells, and physical sensations on board an airplane, it can be overpowering. Finding out why things get bumpy in the air sometimes, what’s making that “clonk” sound, or why the airplane is all of a sudden tipping it’s nose down can help both kids (and adults) feel safer.
It is easy to find mountains of data about how safe flying is, such as that the most dangerous part of your trip is the drive to the airport, and so on. Statistics alone, though, won’t make a child’s anxiety about getting onto a plane go away. Talking about and showing a child how planes fly is more likely to be an effective strategy, especially for older children and teens.
Provide your child with books about airplanes and flying, toy replicas of airplanes, and videos about flight. Look up answers to his or her questions together. Build and try out small flying machines with your child. If you have an aviation museum nearby, go look at planes and maybe even sit in the cockpit. Let your child talk to the flying experts there.
Talk about all the people that work to make flying safe
Inform your wary child that there are literally dozens of people whose job it is to make sure the plane is safe and ready to go. Talk about safety engineers and the pilots, and point out the ground crew and flight attendants.
The layers of security present at big airports can be intimidating and worrisome for small children. Talk to your child about how all the security officers and the machinery and checkpoints they use are there to make flying safer.
Information and familiarity are enemies of anxiety, especially when acquired methodically. Each step along the way to familiarizing your child with how planes fly, the process of flying, and the people behind the flight can help to reduce flight anxiety in kids.
Gradual desensitization is a slow, step-by-step approach to helping someone become more comfortable with a situation or circumstance that causes anxiety.
Start early, and take your time in helping your child become more comfortable with the concept of flying in a plane. Don’t wait until the last minute, and move at the child’s pace. If it takes a few trips to the airfield or museum to establish a comfort level with flying, so be it. It will be worth the effort when it’s time to fly.
Talk to the Crew
Inform the flight crew about your child’s flight anxiety. Flight crews are trained to deal with anxious passengers, including children, and we do deal with them on a regular basis. We will be happy to provide a little extra attention and information to your anxious child. From my own experience I can tell you, that is is a lot better to calm fears right from the start instead of letting them erupt into a tantrum or panic attack.
You don’t need to use a “sorry, but you’re going to have your hands full with my kid on this flight” type of approach. Instead, tell an attendant at the start of the flight something along the lines of “this is my child’s first flight, and she is very curious and a bit nervous/ anxious .”
In the moment, on board, when your child is frightened and maybe crying or struggling to get out of their seat, do whatever you can to calm them down: hold them, hold their hand, sing a song, and keep reassuring them that everything is fine.
Looking at a new book or toy, looking out the window, talking about the place you’re going to (whether you’re headed back home or is setting off on a new trip), making silly faces, bringing a puppet to play goofy games with, playing peek-a-boo with a blanket… you get the idea. Just take their mind off what they’re scared of.
If there are individual TV-screens on your flight, try to find a movie they like, bring a game they like, or an i-pod with their favorite music or story.
It’s important to try to stay calm yourself even if your child is anything but. That’s not always easy to do of course, especially if your child is freaking out and refusing to put their seat belt on, screaming, wailing, and kicking their feet
Most kids do calm down eventually, unless something is physically bothering them like an ear infection or other illness. Take-off and landing are usually the worst times for anyone with a fear of flying. Any kind of turbulence can also be very frightening for a child, but then let’s face it: nobody likes turbulence!
Lots of preparation, lots of practice (flights), and learning more about airplanes are the best ways to help reduce a child’s fear of flying. Each child is different, so try to find what strategy works best for you, and then deal with the situation the best you can. Which is what we parents do pretty much every day, whether in the air or on the ground.