Friday, November 4, 2011

Flying with kids: handling meltdowns

Traveling by plane with kids is not usually relaxing, especially on long trips. Throw in a meltdown or tantrum along the way and you are dealing with an extremely stressful situation for both you and your child. I recently read a very good article titled "7 steps to manage yourself when your child melts down", at the Stress Free Kids website. It's a great read, and I highly recommend it to any parent who has ever experienced a meltdown or tantrum, travel-related or not.

Keeping yourself calm is often one of the biggest challenges when your child is melting down or having a tantrum. Anyone who has experienced it in a public place knows what I'm talking about: your child is super-duper-extra loud, maybe acting out by hitting or hurting themselves or others, and in obvious distress. Meanwhile you feel as though every person watching (and listening) is judging you, your child, and your parenting skills. If you're in an airport (or worse: an airplane), these feelings can be exponentially increased.

My main tips if your child is having a meltdown or tantrum while you're traveling is to:

  • Try not to concern yourself too much about what other people are thinking. It will only stress you out further, and probably won't make your child calm down any faster. A lot of people do have compassion for a parent dealing with a crying, screaming child. Try to focus on your child and how to help them, everything else is secondary. And remember: even the worst meltdown or tantrum will eventually pass.
  • Try to determine if the incident is related to hunger, thirst or exhaustion. Long flights can wreak havoc on adults and kids. Not enough sleep, unfamiliar food, dehydrating airplane-air... for a child this can add up to serious meltdown material. Try to get your child to eat and drink something, and if possible, find a quiet spot: nap, watch airplanes, read a book, sing a song... do something to allow them to regroup and rest.
  • Examples of quiet spots: gates with no departing flights, family rest-rooms with a door you can close, corridors with big windows to watch airplanes through. If you're on an airplane, you're pretty much out of luck. All you can do then is do the best you can for your child and repeat the mantra "this too shall pass". The other passengers may be annoyed and angry, but they will be ok and so will you and your child.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare. Talking to your child ahead of time about what is going to happen at the airport, when you're boarding, and on the flight can really help reduce anxiety, and can also help kids deal with the boredom and exhaustion they'll experience while traveling. Kids who know what's going on and what will happen next deal better with travel stress in my experience.
  • Give yourself lots of time. Arrive early at the airport if you can so you don't have to rush and stress. If you're catching connecting flights, try to book flights that give you a little bit more time to get from flight A to flight B.
  • Remember that a tantrum or meltdown doesn't mean you are a bad parent. Usually my kids do really well on our long-haul flights, and I have gotten a lot of compliments on their behavior when we fly. However, the same kids who act all nice on one flight, can be acting out in the worst way on the next flight. And it's not necessarily anyone's fault: traveling isn't easy, and tired, hungry, uncomfortable kids do not always act like little angels.

The best thing to do in case of a tantrum or meltdown is to stay calm and wait it out (and use the other tips mentioned in the article linked to above). However, when you're traveling by plane, this isn't always possible. Sometimes you need to get from A to B now, or you will miss a flight (leading to even more stress for all involved).

My meltdown story
On my trip to Sweden this past summer, I experienced the worst meltdown situation I've faced in a long time. It happened on the last leg of our trip, when we arrived in Stockholm after 15+ hours travel time spread over two flights. We had to get our luggage, and then walk from one terminal to another with that luggage, then check in for our third and final flight, and find our gate, all in just under 1 1/2 hours. The time shrunk because our luggage was late coming out. The kids were exhausted, I was exhausted, we hadn't had a proper meal for a while, and we were just all generally fatigued.

Both kids had simultaneous meltdowns as we walked through the airport. My son was crying and screaming that he wanted to go back to Canada (the sensory overload of a busy airport with hordes of people did not agree with him), and my daughter was screaming and crying because I wouldn't stop to buy her a stuffed reindeer (though the real reason was of course her exhaustion rather than the reindeer).

I walked through the airport with them wailing behind me. I checked us and our luggage in for the last flight while they both screamed and cried. Then I got them to go through security, still crying.

We got to the gate with 15 minutes to spare. I got the kids to sit down, drink some water and eat some pretzels. My son then stood by the window and watched the planes take off and land outside, while my daughter put her head in my lap. A bit of water, a small snack, some quiet time, and after that they were fine. They both fell asleep as soon as they sat down on that last flight, and slept like logs for the entire flight.

The moral of this story
Long trips by plane can be really stressful and tiring, and sometimes that can lead to meltdowns and tantrums. And sometimes when you're traveling, there is not much you can do except try to get your child where you need to go (even if they're wailing) and then deal with what is causing them distress.

When you're traveling with kids, you try to come as prepared as possible, and then you deal with whatever arises as best you can. And that is good enough.

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