Phobias expert Christopher Paul Jones shares advice on how to help children enjoy flying – and what to do when they don’t.
We’ve all met an adult with a phobia of flying – perhaps you suffer yourself. With adults, the solution is to visit a therapist who can help you conquer your fear. But what do you do when it’s a child who has a chronic fear of flying?
As we head into the summer holidays, the idea of boarding a plane en famille can be a daunting prospect. But there are ways to prepare your child and make sure that your long-awaited trip doesn’t become a nightmare.
The first thing is to realise that a phobia of flying is not based on logic. In other words, talking to your child about their concerns, and trying to rationalise them, just isn’t going to cut it.
So here are my top 10 tips on how to handle a child who’s anxious about flying:
LISTEN TO HOW THEY ARE FEELING
It can be so easy as parents to think that we know better. Of course, as adults, we probably do, but make sure that if your child opens up to you, you do not try to rationalise what they are feeling, but actually listen to them. Sometimes just feeling heard, and saying how they feel out loud, can leave a child feeling much better.
GET THEM TO IMAGINE AND VISUALISE ‘THE PERFECT FLIGHT’
Children often can’t imagine what it will be like when they are on that journey, and on board that plane. In their imagination, they have turned the reality into something really scary. Take some time to just sit and have some fun with your child and visualise that perfect flight. What will they eat, drink, listen to and watch? Excite them.
TALK ABOUT THE DESTINATION. WHERE IN THE WORLD ARE YOU GOING?
If you’re going to Paris, then get them excited about Paris. Take a day where you cook and eat French food, watch a French movie, look online at the places you will visit. Often, a child’s mind can become fixated on the ‘journey’ – try to get them to look at the ‘reward’ for taking that journey, which is the destination. Distraction techniques like this are great as, if they start to panic on the plane, you can simply remind them about Paris (or wherever it is that you’re going).
TAKE A TRIP TO THE AIRPORT THAT YOU’RE FLYING FROM
Again, a child’s imagination can really hype things up – take them to the airport that you will be travelling from and spend a little time there. That way, they have something tangible and real to think about. Show them where you will check in, take a look in the coffee shops and talk about the nice things that you can do whilst you are waiting to board your plane. This will turn imagined scenarios into a more real one that they can then look forward to.
CONTACT THE AIRPORT AND SEE IF YOU CAN BOOK A VISIT
You can, of course, take things one step further from simply visiting the airport. Why not call them and book an official visit? Sometimes, children are aware that their parents are trying to make them feel better. However, hearing from someone in ‘uniform’ that their journey is going to be amazing often means more to them as it comes from someone ‘official’.
GO ON A SHOPPING TRIP FOR IN-FLIGHT GOODIES
In the days leading up to the journey, why not go shopping? Buy lovely things that you can enjoy on the journey – snacks, a book, lavender spray, a pillow, blanket and perhaps a new DVD to watch on a portable player. Make it feel a little like Christmas, so that they are distracted into focusing on the things that they will get to enjoy on the day.
FIND THEM A TRAVELLING COMPANION
As part of the shopping experience, find your child a travelling companion. Think teddy, doll or action figure. You can then include the figure in the stories you will share as you prepare for your holiday. Also, your child will have something (or to them, somebody) else that they can confide in about how they are feeling. This companion can also act as a security tool for them to hug or squeeze as they take off and during the journey.
PANIC IN THE AIR? DISTRACTION ALWAYS WORKS BEST WITH CHILDREN
If your child panics when you’re in the air, it can be quite frightening for you as a parent. You want to protect them but you also know that you cannot get them off the plane in that moment. The most important thing to do is to remain calm. Distract your child as soon as possible. You can do this by turning to the goodies that you went shopping for in preparation for the journey. Get the portable DVD player out and put their favourite film on – make sure to take some headphones, and that way they can zone out any background noise. Take plenty of their favourite snacks and create an in-flight cinema experience – try to distract as many of their senses as possible, and avoid talking about what is upsetting them because they may become even more emotional.
TALK TO THE CABIN CREW – YOU’RE NOT ON YOUR OWN
If your child is really panicking and your distraction tactics don’t seem to be working, have a quiet word with the cabin crew and see what they can do to help with the situation. Maybe consider talking to them once you have boarded, and that way, they will be aware of your situation throughout the journey. Sometimes, all it takes is an outsider, especially one in uniform, to come along and take charge of things. Hearing that all is OK from the cabin crew might be much more effective than Mummy.
AT ALL TIMES, STAY CALM. THINGS MIGHT BE ROCKY BUT YOU HAVE GOT THIS
Remind yourself that you have got this. You are calm and capable and you can totally take control of things. Your child, on the other hand, may find that their emotions and feelings fluctuate. This is normal and, in a way, it is to be expected. This, however, does not mean that the steps that you have been taking with them have not been working; it simply means that children are changeable, and will ask lots of questions. Be fluid in your approach to this issue, and above all, stay calm and be there for them.
Finally, know that just because your child is feeling this way now, does not mean they will go on to develop a long-term fear of flying. Some fear at this stage of life is normal. However, do not forget that the way you handle things can really have a big impact. Stay calm, be receptive and remember that you cannot tackle a fear of flying based on logic. Oh, and enjoy your trip!
Christopher Paul Jones, aka The Breakthrough Expert, is a Harley Street therapist who specialises in helping people let go of their fears. christopherpauljones.net