A fear of flying typically emerges in older children, and this is another one of those fears that tends to be closely tied with a general anxiety disorder. Younger kids may also experience anxiety, but these fears usually have more to do with the tangible sensory experiences of flying, such as the roar of jet engines or the sensation of taking off, rather than a fear of crashing.
Fears about flying can also be related to claustrophobia. It’s not so much the flight that scares these kids; it’s the tarmac tunnel and being cramped inside the tight quarters of a flying tin can that bothers them. So before you go about trying to tackle these fears, see if you can figure out what precisely is causing your child’s anxiety.
How to deal with a child’s fear of flying
If you need to take a flight, these preparations can help you manage a child’s fears and ensure the process goes much more smoothly:
- Give your child a play-by-play analysis of what is going to happen next: everyone has to put their seatbelt on; the plane will drive slowly to get to the runway where it will take off; there’s going to be a high-pitched noise that gets louder and louder as the engines warm up, then a roar as they reach full throttle so that the plane can take off; etc. Having an expectation about what will occur gives them a greater sense of control over the situation.
Be sure to talk about these things in the days leading up to the flight, and then again as they actually occur. Make sure you discuss boarding procedures as well (scanners, pat downs, etc.), otherwise this may heighten a child’s anxiety before they’ve even stepped on the plane.
- Walking the tarmac can be a source of fear for some kids. It’s a long, compact tunnel high off the ground that leads to a narrow opening on the plane. So as you’re waiting to board, talk about how they bolt it to the plane and how it’s made of strong steel to hold their weight.
- Teach them rituals to manage this anxiety should it get too overwhelming. One that works particularly well for these type of situations is the eye-gazing exercise: Have them hold your hand and look straight into their eyes, while they stare straight back into yours. This typically gives children the strength and comfort to manage their fears.
- If possible, inquire about where they would like to sit before you purchase tickets. This helps them feel empowered over the situation.
- Flying should be a fun experience – it is for most kids. But when a child exhibits fear, usually parents switch gears and relate to the situation through those fears. This serves to reinforce them. So without disregarding their feelings, don’t acquiesce to the idea that flying should be scary. Talk about the pleasure of flying, how it makes you feel on top of the world, how you enjoy the experience of taking off or looking out the window.
Children follow your lead. If you approach the experience as enjoyable, it may cause them to reinterpret these feelings as excitement rather than fear.
- Watch your words. Comments about how you “hate flying” because of the airport hassle or dealing with security may be misread by kids as ambivalence towards the flight itself.
Helping children overcome a fear of flying
Helping children (or anyone else) overcome a fear of flying is about guiding them towards the facts that put the risk in perspective. Flying is already far safer than driving, so overcoming a fear of flying is about discovering (and acknowledging) facts that provide comfort against the irrational fears.
- Fact: The majority of people who experience plane crashes survive. Historically, around 60% of passengers survive plane crashes, usually walking away with no serious injuries. One of the things that makes planes seem scarier than cars for some people (in spite of statistics) is that a plane crash seems more absolute and uncontrollable. They think, “if something happens, it’s all over.” Recognizing that airplane accidents can indeed be survived helps people feel more in control again.
- Fact: The risk of death from the average plane flight is equal to 12 minutes of driving in your car at 55 m.p.h.
- Talk about how planes, unlike cars, have mechanics who check them over all the time to make sure everything is working. Parts are replaced regularly to protect against wear and tear and ensure everything is working just like new.
- Ask them to adopt the perspective of a pilot or flight attendant, who go on flights almost every day, several times a day, without ever experiencing anything scary. As one pilot says, “People always ask, ‘What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you?’ I tell them it was a van ride from the Los Angeles airport to the hotel, and I’m not kidding.” (Readers Digest, Nov. 2010, p. 96) Virtually every pilot and flight attendant will retire after millions of flight hours without ever having experienced a crash. So what are the odds of you experiencing such a thing on your occasional flight?
- Talk about how pilots, unlike the drivers on the road, go through many years of training.
- In the post-911 era, some of this fear may be due to concerns about a terrorist attack or hijackers. So be sure to point out all the safety measures that have been put into place since then: Cockpit doors are now locked in flight so that nobody can get to the plane’s controls except pilots; luggage and passengers are more clearly checked to ensure they aren’t carrying weapons, and so on.
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