Airplane anxiety is understandable – but if you’re suffering in front of your children, you could unwittingly be passing your fears on to them. Here, Dubai’s experts offer their advice for creating a family of fret-free frequent flyers…
With school holidays upon us, it’s mass exodus season. For many of us, that means flights out of here. And while plenty of children look forward to the journey much as the holiday itself, for some young passengers, airports, aircraft and flights bring a sense of unease. So what can we do, as parents, to help our little ones fly confidently?
First and foremost, says Dubai-based life coach, hypnotherapist and author Russell Hemmings, try to understand why your child is showing signs of anxiety about flying. “If you have a fear of flying and become anxious prior to and during a flight, it’s highly likely your children will pick up on your distress and will follow suit,” he says.
Dr Amy Bailey, child psychologist at Dubai clinic Kids First, agrees. “Children develop anxiety about flying for many different reasons, but one of the most common is through observing a parent’s fear of flying,” she says.
It could be something as simple as the child’s natural anxious tendencies, says Dr Bailey, or even the fact it’s something a bit different, but all reasons are equally valid. Hemmings also suggests difficulty understanding how aircraft actually fly, worrying about being in a confined space and not being able to do anything about it, previous bad experiences or hearing negative stories about flying could all have an impact.
If your own fear of flying is the root cause of your child’s fear, you’ll need to deal with it, or at least employ a coping strategy that has little or no negative impact on how the child perceives your behaviour, says Hemmings. Examples he suggests include walking around the terminal retail space – more enjoyable and normal for your children than seeing you sitting with your head in your hands – or using common stress-busters such as exercise, mindfulness techniques or rhythmic deep breathing.
Whatever the reasons for a fear of flying, there are plenty of things you can do to ensure your flight isn’t a traumatic experience for your child. “Plan ahead. Tell your child what will happen and what they can expect,” Dr Bailey suggests. “For example, explain what happens during take-off and landing, what noises they might hear and what turbulence is, so there are no surprises. Reading a book or watching a film about air travel can help, or you could even simulate an air flight in your lounge.”
Anticipating how you’ll deal with any questions or concerns as they arise is also important. “For example, when there’s turbulence tell them it’s just air; planes are made for dealing with air and it’s the same as a ship rocking up and down on the sea,” she says.
Openness and honesty in discussing your trip and any concerns children may have is crucial, finds Hemmings. “Always avoid telling them they’re wrong, silly or even stupid for having these fears,” he advises. “Instead, engage them in dialogue well in advance of the flight, empathise and use factual information. For example, saying ‘When I was younger I couldn’t imagine how a plane could fly and it scared me. But you know what I heard? Flying is the safest way to travel’.”
Hemmings says proper preparation should also include attention to diet and rest prior to the trip. “The way highly processed, fatty, sugary foods deliver their energy content is at odds with our aim of creating a calm, relaxed, traveller,” he says.
“The last thing any parent needs is a child experiencing the energy spikes and emotional troughs that junk and candy inevitably bring. The same goes for sleep; granted, it’s not always easy when the family is excited about a vacation, but the restorative benefit of solid, prolonged sleep is immeasurably beneficial to a child about to enter a modern airport environment.”
Dr Bailey says an appropriate reaction to your child’s fear is vital. “Offer comfort as needed, and if your child does express fear, don’t minimise it,” she says. “Instead, tell them a story, hold their hand, sing them a song.” Bringing along a familiar, comforting item such as a favourite teddy can also help, she says. “And, when they’re more relaxed, use redirection to an activity to distract their minds.”
Hemmings agrees redirection is a great way to manage a child’s fear of flying. “Keeping a child’s mind occupied is a great way to stop it wandering off searching for things to worry about. So bring on the gadgets, colouring, music, books, puzzles, family games and inflight movies,” he says.
On the day, timekeeping is essential (as much for you and your sanity as for your children). As Hemmings says, stress thrives on narrowing timescales. And, of course, approaching the journey with the right attitude is key. “It should be fun from the offset” he explains. “Be it a family vacation or visiting relatives, start the cheerful, feel-good effect right from home. Talk happily about seeing family, or what the beach destination will be like, to help create a feeling of eager anticipation.”
Plenty of food for thought if your child is showing any signs of worrying about your next flight, for sure, but perhaps the most sage piece of advice is also one of the simplest. “Try to make flying normal,” suggests Hemmings. “You don’t need to take numerous flights all over the world, you just need to demonstrate that millions of people do it and many, many thousands work in all aspects of aviation. Therefore your trip – although special to you – isn’t out of the ordinary in any way.”
This article was originally published in Good magazine