How to Help When Your Child is Afraid to Fly

by Parent Co. January 04, 2017

boy sitting on the seat looking out an airplane window while flying

My 18-year-old stepson hates to fly. He white-knuckles the arm rests and squinches his eyes shut during take off and landing. The irony of his fear is not lost on him, or on us: his father and two of his grandfathers have been lifelong Boeing engineers (and Boeing managers) who have designed and built planes and rocket ships.

With a younger child, flying can be an adventure. Meeting pilots, getting “wings” and an activity pack from the flight crew, and riding with all of the other passengers can be thrilling for a preschooler. If the loud engine noise or other airplane sounds are scary or stimulate your child, younger children can be easier to distract with games, videos, and noise canceling headphones.

In his book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fear, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life—from Toddlers to Teens, Dr. Tamar Chansky writes that you can prepare your child for this by discussing and simulating various airplane sounds and turbulence at home. “Have the child make the sounds of the wings, the wheels, etc. Car washes are great approximaters of some of the sounds and sensations of flight.”

But for an older child who is afraid to fly, distractions and simulations may not work. Instead, with our stepson, we’ve followed the approach recommended by the Anxiety and Depression Society of America (and combined a few of their bullet points together):

Figure out what triggers set you off

Understanding them makes it easier to turn them off. Is it the noise? Is it fear of dying in a crash? Fear of crashing itself?

Step onto the plane with knowledge

What ifs can be limited by facts. The Insurance Journal reports that “865 times more people are killed in motor vehicle crashes” than in commercial airplane crashes. (Motor vehicle crash odds are 1 in 112 vs. 1 in 96,566, according to the Insurance Journal.)

Understand how a plane is built and what it’s tested to withstand

My husband tells us about all the tests done to planes so they can withstand conditions they most likely would never encounter, including massive bird strikes, bending of the wings (up to 90 degrees), extreme lightning strikes, and extreme temperatures. This BBC article also summarizes those kinds of stress tests planes go through before they ever make it to carrying passengers.

Anticipate the anxiety

Often, waiting to feel fearful is worse than the actual experience. Label your fear as anxiety and realize it doesn’t correlate with real danger. Try to stay in the moment and not let your imagination create worse-case scenarios.

Know you can ask for help from those around you

I’ve been on planes sitting next to people who fly with anxiety-pets to help calm them. I’ve also sat next to people who haven’t had the comfort of an animal, but who’ve asked to hold my hand during turbulence to reassure them that they’re not alone. Children (and adults) of any age should know it is okay to ask for assistance when they need it.

We have encouraged our stepson to fly. Every flight makes the next one easier. Positive experiences are powerful forces in overcoming phobias.




Parent Co.

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