It will come as no surprise to most parents that different kids, even siblings, may handle airplane travel very differently. Just like with adults, their personalities and temperaments influence how they deal with air travel.
In my experience, the two main issues a parent ends up having to deal with is boredom (long flights are quite boring after all), and various levels of anxiety. Most kids will experience a combination of these two while on a long flight, but which of those two issues dominates, will depend on your child.
Like many people, both adults and children, my son was once a fearful air-traveller. He still is to some extent. At times when he was younger (he's 9 years old now), he was sometimes so fearful on the plane that he refused to put his seat-belt on (not a good thing), and insisted on curling up with his head on my lap for most of our flights (more manageable).
Any slight bump or shift in the plane, any little noise, would make him grip my hand so tight it almost hurt. At the same time, he has also always been extremely fascinated by aircraft and what is going on during the flight. He pays attention to every little sound and movement the plane makes: wheels going up, engine noise changing, wing flaps moving, and so on.
Since he was a baby he has travelled at least once a year by plane, often more than once, and often on very long flights between our home in western Canada and Sweden. Several things have helped reduce his anxiety over the years, and here are some of the things I've found especially useful:
- Practice - Obviously, going on airplanes a lot has helped him get used to it which is often helpful when it comes to reducing fearfulness.
- Preparation - Talking about our trip ahead of time, and going through the various steps of it (check-in, security, waiting at the gate, boarding, and so on) so that he knows what to expect, really helps him get ready for travel. Knowing what is going to happen helps him deal with the anxiety.
- Learning about planes & airports - This has also been helpful. Reading books about airports and airplanes has made him more knowledgeable, which also helps reduce his fears. Knowing why the wing-flaps move, and what the strange noises are when the wheels come up, has really helped him. Now when he's on the plane, he might still grip my hand when he hears the strange noises, but he will also tell me what that noise probably is. Knowledge really is power in this case.
- Having a routine on board - My son loves his routine, and we now sort of have a routine for what we do at the airport before boarding, and what we do on the plane. Once we're in our seats, there's a whole ritual of taking shoes off, stowing hand-luggage, finding a blanket and pillow for everyone, and so on. This has also helped him feel more in control and less anxious.
The website Stress Free Kids has some great tips and resources for anxious children.
My daughter, now 5 years old, has never seemed particularly anxious about air-travel. Unless there's turbulence, she displays little to no interest in what the airplane is up to. She's more interested in what goodies she might find in her seat pocket, what movies are playing on her entertainment screen, and if the airline will hand out any "activity packs" to the children on the flight.
The main challenge with her is usually not anxiety, but overcoming the boredom of a long flight.
For my son, I don't worry so much about bringing toys and activities along (though I do bring some). He's so interested in what is going on with the plane, or watching what is going on the tarmac if we're at the airport, that he doesn't really need any other entertainment. The movies and TV-shows available on the plane are usually enough for him. For my daughter however, I know I need to come well prepared.
Here are some strategies I've found that work for her:
- Bringing activities she doesn't know about - I always let her pack some toys for herself on the plane, and that usually ends up being a LOT of stuffed animals. However, I also always pack some things for her without telling her what they are before the trip. That way, I can break down the boredom by popping out a new sticker book, or a pack of crayons she hasn't seen before.
- Playing simple games - Right now, her new fascination is rock, paper, scissors, and this will make quite an excellent on-board game. Other simple games like tic-tac-toe, 20 questions, or rhyming or storytelling games are excellent too.
- Packing some treats - Unexpected treats can also help break up the tedium of a long flight. Yes, this does sometime involve feeding her candy, but it's worth it if it takes the edge of her restlessness for a little bit.
- Reinforcing rules ahead of time - When my daughter is bored and tired, she does not always behave like an exemplary child (shocking, I know...). That's to be expected on a very long flight involving cramped seats and jet-lag. But to make our travels easier, I always go through the basic rules of behavior on board before we get on the plane: don't kick the seat, don't play with the tray-table, and don't scream. I go through them with my son as well, but she is the one (partly because of her age) who might need that special reminder about what goes and what doesn't.
And I always remind myself that whatever happens with the kids, it's probably something that will eventually pass, and that eventually we will arrive at our destination, and eventually that long flight will be over and done with. "This too shall pass" is a good traveling mantra!