What should parents do when their kids show a fear of flying? One suitcases&strollers reader wrote to us about her experiences with her son whose fear turned into a phobia that now impacts him as a teenager. To help other parents flying with kids, suitcases&strollers sought the advice of Stephanie Shah, an occupational therapist with a background in child psychiatry, about what you can do if your kids are too scared to fly. 

A Message From A suitcases&strollers Reader

So, I am walking up and down the aisles of my local supermarket in mid-December, shopping for Christmas dinner. Should we have ham or turkey? What about the veg. Asparagus? And before dinner? I eye the fresh prawns, the yummy chip dips – the chocolate! I’m in the Christmas spirit – the halls are decked, jingle bells are ringing in my head, the kids are off from school, I am on a holiday break from my work, we are all getting ready for the festivities, wrapping gifts, hiding them in our closets, teasing with titillating hints. And best of all, my son, who I hadn’t seen since I left him in Boston in July for college, is coming home.

Then (in the meat aisle), my handphone rings…

“Mum, it’s Cooper. I can’t get on the plane.”

A little bit of background. Cooper is 19 years old. He has always been afraid of flying. Well, not always. Cooper’s drama – dark fascination, actually – with airplanes began on September 11, 2001. We were living in California, in spitting distance of San Francisco International Airport. It was difficult for anyone not to see the passenger airplanes being escorted into SFO that day by fighter jets after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. And the images. All the images. Everywhere.

Then there was that flight we were on one summer a few years later from New York to London, heading back home after a glorious month with family. The airline shall remain nameless because we have had some great experiences with it, but this flight has to go down as The Worst Ever. I’m on the plane with Cooper and his two sisters. Cooper is already white knuckled and worried, old enough to perceive the inherent dangers of flying, but not old enough to understand the remoteness of those dangers. And then the turbulence starts. A hurricane over the Atlantic, we are told. There’s too much jet fuel on board to go over it and not enough time to go around it, so through it we go. After a horrifying 30 minutes of the most severe turbulence I have ever experienced – and by turbulence, I mean the kind that makes you understand why planes have seat belts – I look over at Cooper who is white faced and wide eyed, the tears streaming down his face.

That was about 5 years ago. There have been more turbulent flights since then – many, actually – and Cooper flies reluctantly. He only boards a plane when he really has to and suffers terribly at the gate. For him, the reality of air travel has been jaded by his past experiences, by too many episodes of Air Crash Investigations and, unfortunately, by my rather dismissive attitude about his fear and my lack of attention to some of the horrific images he was exposed to after 9/11. I thought by “ignoring” his anxiety he would realise that flying is no big deal and that he would outgrow the fear.

Back to the supermarket. After my threats (in the bread aisle) of “Cooper, that plane ticket cost nearly $3,000” and pleas (now in the wine section) of “Cooper, we really miss you. Please try again to board,” the reality that he is not coming quickly settles in when he tells me he is on the floor in the men’s bathroom at Logan Airport, vomiting from anxiety and fear, begging me not to make him get on the flight. This was a very real fear, I was now realising, whether rational or not, and no amount of cajoling or threats would get him on the plane. Clearly, I had failed as a parent somewhere along the line and was wrong in thinking he would outgrow what I perceived to be just a childhood misgiving.

But Cooper is scheduled to visit home in June (this time his dad will be on board with him) and, in the meantime, he is going to see a counsellor about his fear of flying. He said to me on the phone yesterday, “Mum, you raised me to be a global citizen. I can’t do it by boat.”

Whew. I’m not such a horrible mum after all.

A Response From A Professional

Stephanie Shah, an occupational therapist with a background in child psychiatry, gives suitcases&strollers her tips for how parents can deal with a fear of flying in kids.

What are the most common reasons kids have to be scared of flying?

This very much depends on the age at which the fear develops. If the child is very young then it is sometimes the result of an over-active imagination. The young child may see the airplane as a monster or have seen something on TV where a plane transforms into something scary.

For “older children” (who can be as young as 4 to 5 years old) the fear is usually based around what might happen to the airplane. For example: it might fall out of the sky or a fear of heights or claustrophobia (not wanting to be restricted in an enclosed space and unable to get out when they want to). Indeed, much of the experience of being on the plane is not being allowed to do what you want to when you want to.

Developing a fear of something in general usually stems from a fear of the unknown. Building on a child’s knowledge, skills and [sense of] feeling in control can go a long way in allaying these fears.

There are also some children for whom the fear represents an underlying anxiety about something else (for example, school or arguing between parents). A little sensitive probing can reveal what is actually going on for them.

How can you tell if it is just a “phase” of being scared or the fear is developing into a real “phobia”?

It is important to look at how long the fear has been going on, the intensity and whether it is increasing with time.

It is difficult [to determine] with young children as some of what you observe could be described as “behavioural” as opposed to authentic fear. It could be that a child has learnt to attract attention (rightly or wrongly) from his/her parents as a result of acting out prior to and whilst on the plane. Only the parent can initially establish if it is a genuine fear and then if the intensity increases as does the length of time it is going on. It is useful to establish the thought patterns associated with the fear, sometimes with the help of a child specialist.

What should parents do when their child demonstrates a reluctance to fly because of fear? When should they ignore and when should they intervene?

A child’s fears should always be validated. This means that they know you have heard what they have said, you have repeated it back to them to show you have heard correctly and then you have told them that it must be difficult to feel the way that they do (to show empathy).

This alone can often reduce the fear because the child feels understood and that the adult is going to try and help. This in turn reduces feelings of being out of control. This creates the ability to think rationally.

It is advisable not to ignore the fear because even if it is borne out of attention-seeking it is not going to disappear on its own and the attention-seeking behaviour needs to be addressed. (The child needs to be reassured that he/she can receive attention from the parent without resorting to fearful behaviour.)

Establishing the child’s level of fear can be a useful assessment tool as well as part of the intervention. It is usually fear of the unknown which can make a fear realise itself and showing the child how a plane works educates them, increases their knowledge and therefore reduces fear. This can be done by exposing your child to the mechanics of a plane, both inside and outside. An aviation museum is sometimes a good place to start and now some airports hold open days where children and adults can explore the planes. [If your children are interested in getting a pilot’s view of a plane landing, go to the suitcases&strollers story What The Pilot Sees

Addressing the fear prepares your child for the flight and eliminates the “hope for the best on the day” attitude. Talking, reasoning and making a joint plan of action (even if your child is young) prior to the flight can go a long way in avoiding heartache.

It is also important to not have too high expectations of your child, otherwise they are likely to “let you down” which in turn will upset you and ultimately them.

What about when talking and reasoning doesn’t alleviate their fears?

The more pertinent question is possibly when to continue tackling the fear on your own and when to seek professional help.

[Professional help] may well ease the pressure on the family to have to deal with it alone and it might be that only a few sessions are needed or even telephone advice. Again, your child will feel listened to and taken seriously if you seek advice.

How do you manage the fear when you are actually on the plane?

A great deal of the work for a successful flight comes before [boarding the plane] and preparation is key. Sitting down and making a joint plan of action will both empower your child and give you something to focus on during the flight.

Before the flight:

·  Talk to your child about his/her fears, acknowledge them and validate him/her.

·  Empathise, no matter how silly whatever it is he/she has said. This is particularly true for older 
children. It is not helpful to tell your child to “stop being silly” or “to grow up”, even if it is with the best intentions.

·  Empower and arm your child with knowledge and the tools to manage his/her fears.

·  Exposure. This is when you gradually build up your child’s tolerance for flying. For 
example showing them a picture of an airplane, then having them draw a picture of an airplane; then having them watch a program on flying until eventually they are ready fly for real.

On the day of the flight:

·  Reduce the chance of emotions running high. It sounds obvious but be prepared. Make sure your child is not tired, that you have enough food for the flight and enough entertainment.

·  Regularly check in with your child but don’t build up the problem.

·  Inform the crew that your child has a fear of flying. They are trained in this and may be able to help.

·  Relax them using visualisation. Have them close their eyes and identify a colour or scene which relaxes them and help them to slow down and steady their breathing. If your children are very young, create a magical creature/wizard who will help them overcome their fear. This can either be just in their heads, or they can use drawing which can be very powerful to show how their strong helper is going to destroy the fear.

For more travel tips on how to distract kids on the plane, see the suitcases&strollers story here