Saturday, March 12, 2011

Traveling with kids: 9 tips on how to handle tantrums on board and at the airport

I have wonderful kids. Really. So, you might be wondering, why do I keep writing about how to deal with, shall we say, "difficult behavior" while traveling? Well, it's not because it happens a lot when I fly with my kids, but rather because when it does happen, it can be a serious problem.

Tired, hungry, uncomfortable, bored, over-excited kids do not always showcase their best behavior. And yes, fall-down, feet-kicking, red-faced, ultra-loud screeching tantrums can happen when you're traveling. So what do you do if it does happen to you? (Except feel mortified and like you're torturing your fellow passengers by your mere presence of course. And all of it in a public place like an airport or an airplane.)

Most of the time, I think parents have a pretty good handle on what works and doesn't work for their own children (even if I know that I sometimes forget what works in the heat of the moment). Here are 9 of my (reality tested!) tips on how to deal with a complete and utter breakdown when you're on an airplane or in an airport.

1. Use Spock
I have no real parenting philosophy or strategy (except "don't hit them"), partly because my children have such different temperaments and personalities that it sometimes makes me feel like a split parenting personality. However, I do love Dr Spock. Reading Spock always makes me realize that whatever my child is doing, I am at least not alone. Here is one great quote about tantrums from his classic tome Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care:
A surprising number of tantrums are a result of fatigue or hunger or of putting a child in a situation that exceeds his capabilities. (Most shopping mall tantrums fall into this category.) [My note: many air-travel related tantrums fall into this category too!] If the tantrum is of this sort, a parent can ignore the apparent cause and deal with the underlying problem: "You're tired and hungry, aren't you? Let's get you home, fed, and to bed, and you'll feel a lot better."
Obviously on a plane trip, you can't immediately go home, but the general idea of how to deal with a tantrum is still a good one I think. Some more from Dr Spock on tantrums:
You can't dodge all temper tantrums. Parents would be unnatural of they had that much patience and tact. When the storm breaks, try to take it casually and help to end it. Don't give in and meekly let the child have their way; otherwise she'll be throwing tantrums on purpose all the time. Don't argue with her, because she's in no mood to see the error of her ways. Becoming angry yourself only forces her to keep up her end of the row. Give her a graceful way out. One child cools off quickest if parents fade away and matter-of-factly go about their own business, as if they can't be bothered. Another, with more determination and pride, continues to yell and thrash for an hour unless her parents make a friendly gesture.

2. Goof around
This sometimes works especially with my son when he gets it into his head that the reply to everything is no, no, no and NOOOOOO! Kidding around, making a joke out of it, seeing the absurdity of the situation ("so you don't want to walk anymore, should we just get all our stuff and live here in the airport?") can break the hardcore NO and get him moving again.

3. Seek solitude
There is not a lot of solitude to be had with a tantrum-throwing child if you're on board an airplane. If you're in an airport, try to find a bathroom, preferably a solo one (many airports have separate family washrooms for example). Then go inside with your child until the storm passes, or at least calms a bit.

4. Get out your stop watch
Some kids, though not all, respond really well to the "how long can you be silent for?", "how fast can we get to the next gate?" tactic. If they're starting to lose their marbles, this can tide you over for a while. Other things like "how many red airplanes can you see?", or "who can spot an airplane taking off?", may also work to bring a tantrum-thrower back to earth (at least eventually).

5. Do something unexpected
My kids often get completely taken aback, sometimes enough to bring them out of a crying fit or tantrum, when I do something totally off the wall. For example, if I start singing or dancing (without causing a public disturbance hopefully) or if I run instead of walk or do a goofy walk.

Things to try on board the airplane include making puppets out of barf-bags, or pretending the airline-supplied pillows are a hat. In the airport, let the kids ride on the luggage cart (if it's reasonably safe) or put them on your back or shoulders for a bit.

6. Hold them
Sometimes kids act up because they're actually scared, freaked out or really tired. In these cases it can sometimes help if you just hold them. On board the plane, you can get away with this as long as there is no turbulence or the plane is not taking off or landing: then you all have to wear your seat-belts and airline crews have no leeway there, even if your child is throwing a fit.

7. Let them sleep or eat
If you think your child is having an episode because they're over-tired or hungry (both are likely to happen when you're on a long-haul flight, just as mentioned in the Dr Spock quote above), then try to calm them down sufficiently that they can fall asleep (if at all possible) or eat something, even if it's just a snack like crackers or a granola bar.

My daughter usually loses her marbles and becomes hyper when she's very tired, and if  I can just get her to calm down for 5 minutes (not always easy) she will usually calm down enough and fall asleep. Getting to that "calm enough" stage can definitely be a challenge though, especially with toddlers. On board the plane you can always try to hypnotize them with a kids' movie or TV-show, reading a familiar book, or singing familiar lullabyes to them.

8. Bribes
Yes, bribes are not a great thing to use all the time. However, when you're in serious need of a quick fix on a long-haul flight or in an airport hallway or security lineup, a bribe might be just what you need. Candy, juice, a bag of chips, whatever it is: use it when you absolutely have to. It's like a super-power you can make use of when you're in really dire straits. Unfortunately, not all kids are susceptible to bribes. My son is not, for example. Lollipops do the trick for my daughter though.

9. When all fails
Sometimes when you're traveling and your child is throwing a tantrum, you might have to haul them off to go somewhere while they're still in the middle of melting down, or put their seat-belt on while they're protesting madly. This always feels pretty horrible for any parent.

However, don't let it get you down too much, and try not to let the perceived (or real) disdain of other passengers or passersby add to your stress. As I've said before on this blog: come prepared (mentally and with a well-stocked carry-on) and deal with whatever happens as best you can. Then have an extra glass of wine, or a long soak in a hot bath once you arrive at your destination!

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