14 Proven Strategies to Help Children Overcome the Fear of Flying
For those who frequently travel long distances, whether for work, to visit family or to take vacations, the process often feels routine. You go through security. You wait in line to board. You find your seat and buckle your seatbelt.
However, for those with a fear of flying, this routine can quickly become overwhelming.
For adults, data can be helpful, as it demonstrates just how safe flying is compared to other modes of travel.
Statistics prove that flying is 200 times safer than driving. Despite around 3 million passengers traveling by air daily, there were only 109 deaths due to airline travel between 2002 and 2007. This compares to nearly 200,000 deaths due to automobile accidents over the same period.
Despite these facts, as many as one in three Americans are either anxious about flying or afraid to fly.
That means that in spite of all the evidence on the safety of flying, 33% of adults are still unconvinced. Considering that raw data is even less helpful for kids, comforting a child who is anxious about a flight can prove to be challenging.
That’s why we’re putting together this guide on how to help a child overcome a fear of flying. These proven strategies will address things to keep in mind before a child’s first flight as well as what you can do to calm a child’s nerves while flying.
Whether you are going on vacation or traveling to see grandparents, you deserve stress-free air travel with children. By following these proven tips for flying with kids, you can help turn an anxious trip into just another routine flight, or even a fun and exciting experience.
How Do You Prepare for a Flight With Children?
One of the best ways to ensure a low-anxiety flight is to take steps towards calming anxiety in children before flying, not after you’ve boarded. With that in mind, here are the best ways to prepare a child to fly, whether it’s their first flight or a subsequent flight after a previously hard time on a plane.
1. Ask questions:
Small children sometimes have a hard time articulating what they find so stressful about flying. For them, they just know that they are scared to fly.
However, by asking questions, you can help your child figure out what exactly makes them so fearful. Maybe they don’t like the enclosed cabin. Maybe they can’t conceive of how a huge plane can stay in the air. Or maybe they had a bad experience being so close to people that they didn’t know.
Regardless of their reasons, by asking gentle and empathetic questions, you can hopefully isolate the cause of their anxiety. This will allow you to address the actual issue, rather than repeatedly — and often ineffectively — concentrating on the general fear. If they don’t get how planes stay in the air, you can explain the mechanics of flight. If they’re scared of being around so many strangers, you can discuss how to talk to strangers with a parent or guardian present.
2. Share information about the flight:
With kids, there’s often a fine line between being scared of something and being curious about something. Consider a child’s love of heavy machinery, like a bulldozer or firetruck. If they never had any experience with a firetruck and it drove by with sirens blazing, it would likely scare them. But if they are familiar with firetrucks and they already think its a cool piece of machinery, then the sound of sirens could just as quickly get them excited.
The same is true of airplanes. By sharing the mechanics of flight with children — whether through discussing a model airplane or watching kid-friendly videos about aircraft — you can turn that anxiety into enthusiasm.
Plus, it’s not hard to share in that excitement, as planes genuinely are incredible machines. Not only will this help reduce anxiety, but it could also become an enjoyable bonding experience for you and your child.
3. See a plane in action:
If you live close to the airport, consider taking your kid to watch planes take off and land before your trip. Larger international airports are hard to access, but at smaller regional airports, the cellphone lot is usually very close to a runway and can provide an ideal vantage point for seeing planes in action.
4. Discuss the helpers:
Many folks complain about airlines and the way they treat passengers. However, one thing that they do well is training their staff to assist parents with children. Those at the gate, the flight attendants and the pilots can do a lot to help a child feel like they are on an awesome adventure.
So spend some time before your flight discussing the various helpers that they are likely to encounter when they take their trip. That way, when it does come time to travel, the people whom they meet will feel like new friends rather than scary strangers.
You also want to spend some time discussing the security process. Those working for security must focus on doing their jobs as efficiently as possible without sacrificing the safety of passengers. That can make them intimidating as they quickly give orders to passengers as they pass through the security check. By giving your child a heads up about this process, you will help alleviate any anxiety that might arise if you are going through a particularly busy security screening.
5. Start early:
You can’t start this process the day before your flight. It will take some time to desensitize your kid. This is especially true if you are undoing a bad experience on a previous trip.
Set a schedule and stick to it. Space out the experience, starting with low-key discussions about flight followed by more intentional desensitization activities.
What Do You Do Just Before the Flight?
The day of your flight is rapidly approaching. You have been setting the groundwork for a low-anxiety journey, but now its time to get ready to board your plane. Use these tips as a checklist for the day before and day of your flight.
1. Do a walkthrough:
The day before your flight is a great time to do a walkthrough. Describe to your child all the steps that they will be experiencing. You can use videos — including recordings of in-flight safety walkthroughs — to take some of the mystery out of the process.
This is also a great time to review the things you covered in your earlier preparations.
2. Take care of yourself:
Many parents with anxious flyers spend so much time worrying about making the process as easy as possible for their kids that they forget to take care of themselves. Unfortunately, nothing makes a kid more anxious than seeing their parent being nervous themselves.
If you are prone to anxiety, whether it’s flight specific or general, then you need to be extra-focused on your anxiety management routine. If you take regular anxiety medications, now is not the time to forget your prescription! If you use breathing exercises or meditation to manage your anxiety, make sure that you save time for this self-care in your preparation for your flight.
That way, once you do get to the airport, you will be able to address all of the logistics of flight with the kind of quiet confidence that will help to soothe an anxious child.
3. Make sure to pack your distractions:
Kids are easily distracted, so use that to your advantage. If your child has a particular show that they love, load it on a tablet so that they can have something to do while you wait to board. If they like comics or a particular book character, consider getting a special copy of a book and saving it for your trip. That way, when you get to the airport, they will have something stimulating waiting for them.
Keep in mind that the logistics of flying often require short stressful situations followed by long periods of waiting around. While waiting at the gate after getting through security may give you a much-needed chance to catch your breath, the idle waiting can cause a child to get bored. And that boredom can quickly lead to anxiety.
So don’t skimp on the distractions. One book might not be enough, so diversify your offerings. Shows, music, books and even small toys that won’t disturb other passengers will give you options.
You also need to remember any comfort items that help soothe your child. A stuffed animal or special blanket will make your child feel more at ease. Not only are these helpful as you wait to board, but they will be crucial during the flight as well.
4. Keep helpers in the loop:
As we mentioned before, flight crews are usually eager to make the flight more comfortable for a child. However, they may not assist you if they aren’t aware that your child is particularly anxious.
When bringing helpers into the loop, avoid using phrases that make your child seem like a hassle, rather than a child who is having a typical experience. Don’t apologize for your child as if they are doing something wrong. Instead, explain your child’s needs. If your child seems curious about the mechanics of flight, the flight attendant may take time during the trip to point out interesting parts of the cabin. Just remember that your child is listening to you as you explain their issues to the flight crew. If you phrase it in a way that makes them feel shame, then you may be undoing all the work you’ve already put in.
Medication should be the last resort for any anxious child. If your child is small, it may not even be an option. However, if your child does have severe anxiety that makes other options impractical, then medication may be helpful.
First and foremost, medication — even over-the-counter medicines — should only be given after consulting a doctor. Motion sickness meds are standard, as drowsiness is a common side-effect. However, all medications — especially those used for off-label reasons — may be risky. Those risks become compounded when children are involved.
How Do I Help a Nervous Child On An Airplane?
Unfortunately, even with plenty of prior preparation, sometimes a child will still struggle with anxiety during the flight. That’s why you need to have an action plan if you do need to calm a child mid-flight.
Redirect their attention:
If you see your child beginning to get upset, try to redirect them as soon as possible. This is where all those distractions you packed come in.
It’s much easier to ease mild anxiety than a full-blown meltdown. So if you know your child is prone to anxiety or has had a bad experience on a plane in the past, you want to make sure that you have distractions ready at the first sign of trouble.
If the fasten seatbelt light is off, even a walk through the cabin may suffice as a redirection. This will give your child an opportunity to stretch their legs and do a little exploring.
Luckily, with a little creativity, there are plenty of things to do with a three-, four- or five-month-old on an airplane.
Pause and keep calm yourself:
Again, you likely won’t be able to reduce a child’s anxiety if you are anxious yourself. While it is a good idea to redirect a child as soon as they start getting distressed, you can also take a pause and calm yourself so that you don’t end up making things worse.
We’ve all seen the parents who frantically try to soothe a child with toys, books or treats. Unfortunately, the child is paying closer attention to their parent’s anxiety than the toy that they’re trying to give them.
As you redirect, do so calmly. Don’t rush through every distraction option you have, thus presenting your child with a new anxiety over choosing. Offer them a book. If that doesn’t work, calmly move on to the next option.
This may be an ok time to bribe:
In most cases, bribing your child isn’t the best parenting practice. However, on a plane, it is sometimes helpful to have a special treat on hand that you can use as a last resort. Maybe it’s a candy that you usually wouldn’t give to your kid. Maybe it’s an extra half-hour of screen time. Or maybe it’s allowing them to have a can of soda when they would normally only be allowed to have milk.
By introducing something that they wouldn’t normally have access to, you can diffuse their worry about being on a plane and instead turn the situation into a special occasion.
Of course, you need to know your child in this situation. If extra sugar is only going to make them more anxious, then a candy bar isn’t going to be very helpful. So make sure that you only offer bribes that you are comfortable paying.
Make light of turbulence:
Turbulence is one of the scariest things for someone unaccustomed to flying. That means when turbulence does hit, you need to do whatever you can to minimize the stress.
Kids often love being bounced on a parent’s lap. So make what is an uncomfortable experience for both kids and adults into a fun game.
It may not work perfectly, but if you stay calm and lighthearted, the experience will be much more comfortable.
No approach to easing in-flight anxiety is foolproof. Flying with a two-year-old is hard. However, by following these tips and experimenting with what works for your kid, you can make flying a lot less stressful.
When planning your tip, try to reduce waiting time and the standard stresses of flying as much as possible. A quality park and shuttle service, for instance, can eliminate the pressure of trying to find a parking spot and significantly reduce the amount of walking you have to do with luggage. And remember the more opportunities to experience flight, the more likely your kid is to become comfortable with flying. So if your first trip wasn’t as smooth as you’d like, know that your next flight may be easier.
And remember, you are not the first parent to fly with an anxious child, and you won’t be the last. You have nothing to apologize for. The best thing you can do for your little anxious flyer is to be a calm and collected as you can be!