How to Calm a Child Afraid of Flying

Children, especially young children, are often afraid of many things. A fear of the unknown is natural for humans, and for children there are more unknowns. 

As a parent, you want to be prepared for any reason that your child might be afraid during your trip. Flying anxiety could be a general fear of new things, or it could be a fear of planes, heights, or the flight itself. Thankfully, there are many tips and tricks for helping your child conquer their fear of flying.

Anxious child at the airport for fear of flying
Flickr- Andy

A bit of preparation your child, and yourself, to deal with any fear in advance will make your journey so much more enjoyable. And don’t worry, we have plenty of hints and to tips for the flight, if anxiety suddenly sets in.

Identifying your Child’s Fear

Watch for the telltales: There are many clues that may indicate a child’s fear of an upcoming flight or trip. Some examples could be sudden bedwetting, stomach aches or headaches without an apparent cause, or exceptional clinginess and crying.

If it is stress, fear, or anxiety, it is important to try to get to the root cause of these issues. 

Your child may even say that they are afraid of the upcoming flight.

Never dismiss a child, expressing their fear, in these moments, this is a great time to start the conversation and explore ways to overcome any fears.

More likely, though, your child will not even know why they feel the way they do or why the different behaviours, pains and bedwetting are happening. Getting them to understand their fears will be crucial. You can do this by trying to figure it out, and explaining to them why they may be afraid

Once you have identified that your child’s fear is the upcoming flight, there are quite a few ways to go about working through this.

If their fear of flying is because flying is new and unknown, you will have an easier time coming to terms with the fear: just treat it like a normal fear.

If the flying anxiety is coming from the flight itself, there are still several measures you can, and should, take. 

Many children are slow to adapt to new things. This is not a bad thing, but something to be aware of. By helping your child conquer their fear, you potentially helping the child better thrive in new situations.

How to help your child overcome their fear of the journey and the unknown

When it’s the anticipation of the unknown, you can address the what and the why. Wherever possible, use as many visuals as you can get your hands on – pictures and videos of your destination, of planes, of animals and fun things to anticipate.

1) Be Enthusiastic

Build positive anticipation towards the trip: Talk about all the things your little one loves and can do on the trip, any people he will get to see or meet. Use really positive language and show how happy you are to be going on the trip. (If the reason for the trip is a necessity- family bereavement or similar- and less happy, try to still find and highlight the positives.)

2) Talk through what to expect

Create a story of the journey: It is a good idea to start going over the details of your trip so your child doesn’t experience surprises that will cause anxiety.  

Don’t be afraid to get highly-specific details and go over the whole process:

  • Arriving at the airport,
  • luggage and security,
  • what they’ll see in the terminal,
  • how the boarding process will work. 
  • what is awaiting you at your destination

The more details you include, the more focused your child will be on the details instead to their fear of flying. (We have a collection of useful playlists with select videos on the Family Flight Advisor YouTube Channel to help with the visuals)

With older children, it’s quite useful to proactively research the airport and any facilities it offers.

READ: although created for parents with autistic children, our Air travel with Autism Guide will have useful snippets for any parent. It guides you through the whole process from arrival at the airport to leaving

3) Get them involved

Get your child involved in the preparations: whether it’s to do with planning on what to see and do or packing.

(Just a small word of warning: manage expectations and guide them in you child in their choices, So you don’t end up committing to things you may not be able to do- like a visit to a theme park, when that is overbooked or beyond your time or budget; packing a zoo-full of soft toys… you get the gist, right?)

4) Bribery

Bribery or as we call it positive incentives, can make a powerful combination with education and preparation. [1] It’s possible to help your child through a trip by giving them a goal to work towards as an incentive for “good behaviour” on the flight.

This incentive could take several forms:  The first, and most obvious, would be offering them something during the flight in exchange for their cooperation (a special snack, a new movie, etc.).  This can allow parents to help guide the child’s attitude during the flight itself. Another would be to offer a special activity after the flight is over (perhaps a trip to a favourite restaurant or a trip to the pool, etc).

How to help a child with a fear of flying

Let’s look at the situation when your child is afraid of flying. This could be due to any number of factors, from simply overhearing someone else close to them mention a fear of flying, a negative news report of a flight and an action movie scene.

For children who can verbalise their fear, find out, through gentle questioning, maybe encouraging them to draw, what it is they are afraid of about flying:

  • Is it the unbelievable physics of flying- a big lump of metal staying in the sky?
  • Is it the enclosed cabin?
  • Or the noise of the plane? The proximity to strangers?
  • Are they afraid of heights?

1) Cover the facts

Facts work for children just as much as they do for adults. (Although our rationale is usually not enough on its own to overcome a fear.) Make your explanations age appropriate: With teens and pre-teens you can generally use stats to show how safe flying is compared to any other form of transport.
For all ages, look at ways to show the phycics of flying

Here are a couple of videos you may find useful:

This one is good, but some children might find it a tad bit too exciting:

2) Get your child used to planes

The first strategy is a simple one: Get your kids used to being around airplanes.  At first, this strategy might sound like a paradox, considering your child is afraid to fly in the first place.  However, the idea is a solid one, especially for younger children who enjoy hands on learning.  

You don’t actually have to go on a plane to get your child used to aeroplanes.

There are a variety of ways to get your children in contact with planes: The easiest one is going to be through books, videos, and other learning devices, but if you have any transport museums nearby, that’s fantastic. Going to an airport and watching planes take off and land is great to start conversations.

Same with plane flying overhead. Did you know there are apps, that help you figure out which flight you can see above? (This blogpost gives the top 10 apps)

3) Tell stories

Stories are human being’s earliest form of dealing with unknowns and learning about the world. Our brains are wired to use them to help us make sense of the world around us, determine what is safe and unsafe. Use this ancient art and tell your child plane stories- funny plane stories, happy plane stories, about heroes and planes and so on.

Pop down to your local library to borrow some children’s books which have planes in them. They don’t even need to deal with the fear of flying to help your child, as long as you are including planes in a positive narrative. (You could borrow some on Amazon, if you have Kindle Unlimited. I found 30 books to borrow for free.)

Child playing to be a plane, way to conquer fear of flying
Image credit: Wooley Wonderworks

4) Visualisation

Creating a positive connection to something you fear works well to alleviate the fear: Together with your child, make up stories about planes and flying, placing yourselves in the story.

To bring these even more alive, encourage them to draw the stories, draw cartoons of the stories. (It can be as simple as stick figures.)

TIP: StoryCubes are a great way to prompt stories, when you are stuck for what comes next.

5) Role play and games

Building a “plane” at home from cardboard or creating a plane cabin in a nook to pretend to be the flight crew or pilots and passengers is another great way to bring airplanes into your child’s world and build positive associations of fun and games.

Familiarity will breed friendliness, and even excitement, in a child’s mind, overtaking the fear.

6) Plan and prepare a stress-free journey

Don’t Rush to the Airport!

How and when you leave to catch a flight can set the mood for the entire rest of the trip. 

A hurried, stressful last-minute pack and dash to the airport doesn’t just affect you, it can affect your children’s reaction to the trip too.  The stress and anxiety to make your flight could have far-reaching effects, especially for the family with an already nervous child.

Fortunately, last-minute airport dashes are an easy problem to fix: 

  1. Planning your route (and parking… we have some tips for pre-arranging parking to be cheaper, stressfree and safe)
  2. packing and stowing your bags ready, several days in advance,
  3. getting up early enough to have time to eat a shower and relaxed meal prior to leaving
  4. checking in as much baggage as possible are all useful ways to save stress and get your trip off to a much easier start.

7) Ask airport staff and crew for help

Airport staff and flight crew are used to dealing with people with varying degrees of flying. In fact, most are trained in assisting with child passengers and would be glad to help you with your child, if necessary. 

Let the staff at check-in know, discretely, about your child’s fear. Your child doesn’t even have to hear this. They will be able to pass a message on to the crew. Then you can let the crew know on-board too.

They will do their best to keep an eye you and your child and will, no doubt, come up with distraction tactics.

8) Prepare distractions

You may have noticed that most of these strategies rely on distraction rather than confronting the issue, and these two are no exception. 

Travel-friendly snacks

It’s trite but true, that feeding a child is a good way to help calm them down.

A good snack is chewing gum (for kids old enough to have it): During takeoff and landing, the change in altitude can cause pressure difference in parts of the ear.  Giving your child a stick of gum on the runway and prior to landing provides an easy way to reduce one of the stresses of air travel and helps clear the pressure difference in the ear.

Of course, the fun doesn’t have to stop with gum:  Small lollipops, trail mix, or even dried fruit are security check safe and can take time to eat.  In addition to providing a crucial distraction from flight anxiety, they also protect the child from the separate frustration of getting hungry.  All in all, you can’t go wrong by packing a light snack for any trip.

Pack plenty of entertainment

We usually advocate taking very few items for entertainment, so kids can really appreciate their environment. However, with a child who has a fear of flying, we want to go for sure things. One of the best ways to get a child’s mind off the flight is to keep their minds on something else: books, toys, films (whether on tablet or offered by the airline) and games you can play with your child will go a long way towards keeping them calm and helping your flight go smoothly.

Distraction with a film is a tool against fear of flying
Image Credit: Tim Samoff

TIP: Don’t forget to pack a good set of children’s headphones, so you can minimise the noise and interruptions to a minimum for other passengers. 

9) Keep yourself calm and relaxed

Staying personally calm may seem obvious in theory, but it is a difficult and essential part of calming your child down.

Children pick up a lot of cues about their situation from adults, and if an adult seems abnormally jittery or is adapting a forced cheerfulness, the child is likely to end up on edge as well. If you’re too stressed, odds are your child will end up stressed as well.

To avoid this, it is important to make sure you don’t get too worked up in your efforts to distract your child. Don’t be afraid to take a moment to breathe, relax, or even take a bathroom break if you need to.

Although we have mentioned this one last, keeping yourself calm should be your first priority, and will go a long way towards making sure your child is alright, too.

10) Get the right seating

Seating on a plane

It’s most important to sit together with all your loved ones, so you can all support your child. If the allocated seating isn’t such, and nothing could be done at check-in, then talk to the flight attendants- they will try to assist you to the best of their ability.

As to where your seats are in a plane, there are advantages to different locations.

Window or aisle? There’s some reassurance about having a window seat an being able to look out, but for some, it’s just too much of a reminder of what they are afraid of.

Where in the plane?
Front of the plane- the premium classes are up front, because they are quieter and less affected by the movement of the plane.
Middle of the plane- over the wings: this is said to be the most stable part of the plane, giving the least bumpy ride.
Back of the plane- The back is the most bumpy and noisy ride. However, the hum of the engines and the vibration can actually be a benefit, providing white noise to calm your child and help them sleep.
So it’s really up to you, which you feel would work best for your situation.

11) Natural remedies

Image credit: Abi Porter

Often underrated, natural remedies, especially herbal teas and natural oils can have a very good calming effect. Some common ones according are [4]:

  • Lavender Oil
  • Chamomile Tea and oil
  • Rose Oil
  • Vetiver Oil
  • Geranium Oil
  • Jasmine Oil

Just make sure you aren’t using too much … not everyone enjoys these scents! A couple of drops onto a blanket or muslin can create quick results.

12) Try a course

Airlines have realised that they are best placed to help customers who have a fear of flying through courses. Did you know that some were offering Fear of Flying courses for kids?

British Airways offers a half-day Children’s Workshop is aimed at children at junior school aged 7 to 11 and another aimed at teenagers till the age of 17. (Find out more on the BA website.)

Medication (debilitating and sickening fear only)

One final strategy on the list, that we’re almost reluctant to include, is one that should only be considered as a last resort is: medication.  This isn’t a fallback that should be used lightly: Medicine isn’t a magic wand to fix parenting problems and could end up doing more harm than good if used incorrectly.

Having said all of this, medication as a last resort should only be considered if your child’s fear of flying is at such a level that it would make them physically ill or otherwise incapacitate them, and even then only after careful consultation with a family physician. Any medication should never be used for the first time before or during your flight.

6 Tactics to use on the Plane to calm a Distressed Child

Fear can strike at any time. Sometimes in the most unexpected moments and it’s usually small, seemingly insignificant things that set it off.

If you notice your child being tense, or they go into full melt-down mode here are some things you can do

1) Identify the fear & find the source

The most important is realising your child is kicking off because of fear. Try to talk to them and listen carefully to what they are saying.

Is it something that you can address- a strange shadow on the wall, a spider(… it happens), turbulence?

2) Redirect their attention

Distract with all means at your disposal: any books, magazines, games and entertainment available.

Music is a great distraction. Having a good playlist, with some of your child’s favourite hits, on your phone or tablet will help . With headphones on, some of the noises of the aircraft will be blocked out too.

3) Stay calm yourself

Whatever is happening, breathe deep and stay calm! This is one time not to worry about what others around you are thinking, but to concentrate on your child, making sure they are ok.

4) Call reinforcements

The flight attendants are there for the passenger’s safety and an anxiety attack is a safety issue. They will have more tips and tricks up their sleeve to help you deal with the situation.

5) Tactile reassurance

Hold your child and hold them tight! Studies have shown that cuddles will activate the body’s oxytocin, the “love hormone” which calms the individual and counteracts the stress hormone, cortisol. [3] A firm, loving embrace will help most children feel more reassured.

6) Meditation and progressive muscle relaxation excersises

Soothing music can provide a great backdrop to some relaxation exercises. A couple of easy exercises to remember are:

  • Naughty toes and sleepy toes
    wiggle your toes (and fingers) while counting to 10 and then relax them for a progressively longer time (10-15-20-25-30 seconds)
    Accompany this with giggles
  • Let’s make lemonade
    Squeeze an imaginary lemon for 10 seconds and relax
  • Blow up a balloon
    This can be a pretend balloon, or you can use the sick bag on a plane. The objective is to take big breathes and blow out slowly and fully. You can even time this or compete with your child on who can blow out the longest.

You could also download some mediations to your phone in advance, that you can all listen to.

Happily flying without fear
Image Credit: Jennie

Hope these tips have helped you guide your child to fly without fear

This is a video by Virgin, which is brilliant for explaining to children (probably 4 years and over, depending on their maturity), about flying without fear.

Share any hints and tips you’ve found helpful! Do you have any other questions? …comment below

Co-authored with Marnie Munns, active commercial airline pilot and mum of two. Marnie also has a Psychology degree and has had her fair share of passengers with a fear of flying.
Marnie Munns

[1] Researchers found that the combination of education and incentives was powerful in a study: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2497104
[2] Desensitizing works to reduce fear- https://www.verywellmind.com/desensitization-for-panic-disorder-2584291
[3] Cuddles are magical and scientists tell you why- http://www.journals.elsevier.com/psychoneuroendocrinology/

[4] Calming essential oils: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0025082/
www.medscape.com/viewarticle/818879
www.draxe.com/vetiver-oil/
www.healthyfocus.org/ylang-ylang-essential-oil-benefits/
www.calmer-you.com/five-essential-oils-for-anxiety/
www.naturallivingideas.com/9-essential-oils-for-hormonal-imbalance-how-to-use-them/
www.researchgate.net/publication/236235613_The_effects_of_jasmine_Oil_inhalation_on_brain_wave_activies_and_emotions
www.consciouslifestylemag.com/best-essential-oils-for-anxiety-and-stress/

Monika Roozen

Monika is a mum of 3, an avid traveller, who grew up travelling the world and has continued travelling ever since. She holds a degree in animal sciences, nutrition and business administration and has consulted for several years for the hospitality industry and customer service departments. Monika loves slow travel- taking time for immersive experiences in culture and nature- sailing and snowboarding. Her personal adventures are chronicled in Inspireroo Family Travel Magazine . (Click to see their family mad ventures)

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