Six Ways to Handle Your Child’s Midair Meltdown

Flying with small children is often fraught with tension. Children are unpredictable, even more so when confined to cramped quarters. And the stress of trying to quiet a screaming toddler is often amplified by the dagger-like stares coming from fellow passengers. While there may not be a playbook for handling pint-size petulance at 32,000 feet, pediatric behavioral experts and the Association of Flight Attendants offer insights into how to avoid, or at least contain, meltdowns.

Pre-Trip Prep

According to Margret Nickels, a clinical child psychologist and former director of the Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families in Chicago, preparation is key to prevention. She instructs parents to address stressors of plane travel — confinement in a small space, lack of control and interruption of routine — before heading to the airport.

Her advice? For children two and older, preface the trip with a chat about the (potentially overwhelming) sensory experiences related to airplane travel so they know what to expect. “Children like predictability,” explains Dr. Nickels. “Let them know that they must sit for a long time, hear strange noises, feel bumps, wear a seatbelt and sit close to strangers.” According to Dr. Nickels, this narrative will reduce anxiety and help the parents refer back to that conversation (“Remember we talked about how you wear the seatbelt until the pilot tells you it’s safe?”) when the child get antsy during the trip.

With that said, parents should prepare for meltdowns (plural) in the form of bribes. Sock away some stickers, new markers (the ones with scents go over well), a small toy your child has admired and special treats like the child’s favorite candy to nip a blossoming tantrum in the bud.

Setting Ground Rules

Dr. Christopher Young, medical director of Wellmore Behavioral Health and Clinical Faculty at Yale University Department of Psychiatry, stresses the importance of setting ground rules before the flight. “There’s not much reasoning that can take place with babies,” he says. Just make sure they are comfortable and well fed. For older children, you can establish in-flight limits and boundaries by using safety as a rationale. For example, “It’s the captain’s rule to keep your seatbelt on during the flight, that running in the aisle is dangerous and that kicking a seat hurts people.” But Dr. Young advises to offer positive alternatives to the “no” (do you want to color? read a book? play hangman?) to swiftly redirect the child’s attention.

Keep Them Busy (But Watch That iPad)

A fact of parenthood: Children are easily bored. One recommended strategy is to keep your children busy so they do not react to the confines of the environment. Parents should be armed with books, developmentally appropriate games (coloring books, Legos, dolls) and electronics. But you can’t just plop these items down on the tray and dive into Netflix. Why? “Parents’ tuning out leads to kids’ acting out,” cautions Dr. Nickels. “You need to hold your child’s attention. Switch up their playtime-reading, stickers, drawing and make snack time an activity, not a detail.” Another potential land mine: hunger. Since a hungry child is a volatile child, it’s essential to have easy-to-transport food (grapes, cheese sticks, goldfish crackers, bars) on hand to keep blood sugar at optimal levels.

About those electronics. It’s tempting to let an iPad or other tablet serve as makeshift babysitter. But, nonstop electronics can backfire. Dr. Young posits that gorging on electronics can induce peevishness and tantrums. Dr. Nickels concurs: “Children do not transition rapidly from digital absorption to reality.” Without parent enforced breaks, kids fall into a daze ignoring hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom and exhaustion. Then, when the device is switched off, they go into ”distress mode,” a professional term for a freak out. To avoid overstimulation, set usage limits (“You can watch two cartoons and then have a snack and read for a while”) before handing over the tablet.

Establish A Rewards System

Rewards can encourage good behavior. Dr. Nickels is a fan of the goody bag. She advises filling a small sack with four surprises to be distributed at specific points during the flight. Let your children know about the goody bag but not what is inside. This way, they can focus on a goal. Electronics can also be leveraged as a reward for good behavior. Screen time can be earned by spending “X” amount of time doing other activities.

Use a Flight Attendant as a Buffer

Of course, these strategies are not foolproof. So, what can you do if you are that parent with a child in full blown tantrum mode? You can’t blame fellow passengers for becoming irritated, especially if the parents are ignoring the situation. According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, passengers will have more empathy if they see that you are trying to diffuse the meltdown. So, standing up and delivering a statement like “I’m sorry my child is being disruptive, please bear with me” can help.

But sometimes things can get hostile. On a Jet Blue flight from Miami to Boston, a nearby passenger berated Becca Schoen when her 15-month-old daughter Leah became fussy and started crying. Recalls Ms. Schoen: “My daughter had missed her nap and was overtired. I was trying to calm her down — walking the aisle, rocking her — and after I sat down, just as Leah was settling down, a woman whipped around from the row in front and said ‘This is outrageous! You need to start walking her again!’ I was mortified. I went to the back of the plane with the baby and began crying myself.” In an aggressive situation like this, Ms. Nelson suggests reaching out to a flight attendant for support. “Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate conflict,” she says. “They can move a family, offer complimentary food or drink to the frustrated passenger or try to reason with the child themselves.”

Bribing Your Fellow Passengers

Even if your child hasn’t uttered a peep, some parents head conflict off at the pass by proffering gift bags to their fellow passengers with a cute note apologizing for unruliness in advance. George Clooney and his wife Amal famously handed out wireless noise canceling headphones to the entire first class cabin on a flight with their infant twins in 2017. But, a less glitzy offering does the job just as well. Cambi Clarke prepared gift bags for passengers in the row ahead, the row behind and aisle seats abutting theirs, all containing an apology note along with chocolate, ear plugs and snacks. “I did not want to be that mom that everyone hates,” says Ms. Clarke. “It was a preventive measure that made me feel less anxious.”

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