Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flying with kids: stressed out parents

I recently came across an article in a Swedish newspaper that mentioned an interesting travel survey done by Gatwick Airport in 2011. In the survey, 1000 people were asked about the most stressful aspects of traveling with their kids. And I have to say, I was not really surprised by the results:

nearly one in three families (30%) find disturbing other holidaymakers one of the most stressful aspects of a trip abroad

More parents are worried about other people’s reactions (54%) to a crying child than the fact they might be in distress (40%) and one in five parents (21%) admit to wishing they had stayed at home.
I've never wished I stayed at home, but I can absolutely relate to the rest of it.

As a parent, you can experience intense feelings of stress (almost panic) when your child is acting out, or having a tantrum or meltdown at the airport or on the plane, right in front of lots and lots of people you don't know. And whether those people actually are judging your child, you, and your parenting skills or not, you will probably feel as though they are doing precisely that.

Funny how I have this photo, but not one of the meltdown that came before it...

How to deal with it

  • Come prepared. There are some good tips at the end of that Gatwick press-release, and you can find more tips on this blog, for example in My Basic Guide to Flying with Children.
  • Try not to stress over what other people are thinking. This is easy to say, but very hard to do. However, if you're stressed, you will probably be less able to help your child calm down, so that stress is really counter-productive. The thing to focus on is your child, rather than the bystanders, and trying to figure out what is going on with them.
  • Remember that your child's behavior isn't necessarily misbehavior. Lots of people, kids and adults, have a difficult time with airplane travel. Your child might be scared, anxious, uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, in pain from ear pressure, or exhausted. An adult might be able to deal with all that somehow, but a child, especially a young child, might not. Fear of flying, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion are the most common causes of my own kids' travel meltdowns.
  • Make a few simple on-board rules for young kids. If you can stop your child from a) kicking the seat in front, b) playing excessively with their tray-table, and c) pulling on the seat-back in front of them, you are doing OK, and your fellow passengers will most likely be OK. It's nice if you can avoid screaming too, but that's usually caused by something bugging your child (fear, hunger, thirst, exhaustion again), and if you can remedy those things, the screaming will likely stop.
  • Maintain a sense of humor. This can be difficult to do, but it really can help.
  • If your child is disruptive, it doesn't mean you're a bad parent. When your child is disturbing the peace, many of us feel like every bystander must surely be thinking we're terrible, horrible parents. But really, what do they know? They don't know that maybe your child has an ear ache, that they didn't sleep or eat properly for 15 hours, or that they have a phobia about putting on their seat-belt. I know from experience that a child might be perfectly calm on one flight, then fidgety, whiny and even melting down on the next one. After all, kids are people too, just people with less ability than adults to control their emotions and behavior.
  • Know that it won't last forever. If your child is screaming, or acting out at the airport or on the plane, every minute (even second) can feel like an eternity. But the reality is that eventually your child will calm down, the plane will land, and everyone will be alright: you, your child, and the other passengers.

How to help other parents
To me, this is really the other side of this issue. Feeling judged by other travellers makes parents feel guilty, which stresses them out, causing them to likely be less effective at calming their kids down. Even just a little bit of compassion goes a long way I think.

  • Offer some kindness and understanding. When I see parents with kids who are screaming and crying or acting out on board or at the airport, I try to offer some kind and understanding words. Simple, parent-sharing stuff like: "My kids do that too sometimes, and then on the next flight, they'll be perfect angels." Or: "Your child must be so tired, I bet all he wants to do is sleep!"
  • Don't offer advice. I rarely offer advice, since I figure most parents know their own kids better than I do, and are trying their best already. (I have offered decongestants and Gravol from my on board pharmacy on a couple of occasions however.) Sometimes I see parents try to handle a situation in a way I wouldn't do myself, but usually you can tell people are really trying their best and there is no point in making them feel worse: they feel plenty bad enough already if their kids are the loudest on the plane.
  • Help out. Play peekaboo for a little bit with a fussy baby. Bring out a toy (hand puppets are good for this) and goof around with a child that is restless and bored. Offer to help get a carry-on down if a parent is struggling with it while they're child is upset. I've had complete strangers do these things for me on flights, and it is very much appreciated.
  • Smile. Even if you can only offer a pained "been-there-done-that" kind of smile, it is 100% more helpful than an evil stare or a mumbled "my kids would NEVER..."

More tips

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