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Sunday, April 1, 2012

Scared of Flying No More!

Fear of flying is no joke--especially for kids!  Here’s some advice to help children overcome aerophobia--most of which I put into practice with my own daughter to help her overcome her fear of flying, which I wrote about in my previous post “Fear of Flying: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Feeling!”:   
  • Talk about your child's fear.  Let's face it, it is kinda' strange to fly so high above the ground!Empathize with them by normalizing fear as part of life and that we become stronger and more courageous by facing our fears--which gets easier the more we do it!  Don't unnecessarily minimize how big their fear may feel.  Help them to break it into smaller, more manageable, pieces.   For example, if your child is afraid of flying figure out if it is being in a small, enclosed space; or is it the loud sounds of the engines; or leaving their doggies behind at home; or possible turbulence during flight? Next, take steps to overcoming each fear.  Brainstorm ways to have courage facing a particular fear and perhaps even simulate facing those bite-sized fears like leaving the dog for a day, using ear plugs around a loud lawnmower, or likening riding in a plan to the roller coaster you may have ridden last summer. 

  • It is helpful to demystify flying and address some of your child’s questions about how safe it is as a method of travel.  Reading books about air travel, describing and visualizing a flight from beginning to a safe and happy landing, and educating your child about how safe flying is and how many millions of people arrive safely to their various destinations every day can be helpful in reducing anxiety.  Even going through a car wash together, or simulating a flight by watching a YouTube clip like this one, or setting up the pillows and a cardboard plane control panel in the living room—complete with self-made sounds and effects—may help to acclimate your child to the feelings, sounds, and sensations similar to those of being in an actual plane.  Normalize turbulence as part of the natural waves of wind the plane will ride up and down during the flight—especially when riding over mountains. 

  • Provide some valuable facts about flight safety.  Frame those facts in ways that kids can understand.  For example, explaining how safe flying is in comparison to driving doesn’t help really--it just made my daughter begin to question even getting into the car.  Fear is contagious that way!  Ask them to visualize the 4.5 million people everyday who fly safely in planes!  Remind them that many of those millions are kids off to visit their beloved grandparents or to see Disneyland for the first time.  Help them visualize such a large number like 4.5 million:  it is way more people that all the people living in Alaska and Hawaii combined, and about as many as live in the entire State of South Carolina. 

  • It is helpful to challenge some of those fear-inducing thoughts by brainstorming solutions to every worry and/or testing if the fearful thought is actually accurate, true, or simply irrational.  Take a piece of paper, divide it in two, and make one side for thoughts that are “True” and one for those that are “Not True.”  For example, “Everybody dies when they fly”— phobic thinking actually sounds like this.  This particular thought would go on the “Not True” list.

  • I’ve also taught my children that if they change their thinking, they can change their feeling.  I encouraged them to notice that when they pick a different thought, their feelings follow suit.  As I've written about previously, in Mental Pathways of Courage, it can take only approximately 90 seconds for feelings to catch up with our thoughts.

  • It is important to focus on the positive benefits associated with flying.  For example, the fun stuff you can do on board, the nutritional/favorite snacks and drinks you will pack, his/her favorite stuffy along for the ride, the movie you will bring to watch or book to read, special friends/family you are travelling to visit, the sights you might see along the way, and any other things your child might be looking forward to about the trip. 

  • Move around during the flight, should aerophobia’s close cousin, claustrophobia, also be contributing to your child’s fear of flying. 
  • One parenting site recommended wrapping little gifts to unwrap each hour on the flight to add something to look forward to and to countdown the hour(s) until you arrive at your destination.  

  • It is also useful to inform the airline staff that you have a hesitant flyer on your hands and any and all treats or accommodations they can make to ensure a relaxing flight would be most appreciated. 

  • Arriving to the airport relaxed helps (not that my family has ever been able to manage this one—which may well have also contributed to our daughter’s anxiety! We even slept through two alarms for our most recent early morning flight.  We were the last to check in and board, but we made it!) 

  • Teaching some simple body relaxation techniques to your child can help them learn the difference between tense and relaxed muscles.  Kids don’t automatically notice the difference.  So, start with your toes, showing them how to squeeze/tense and let go/relax each muscle group, ending with your faces.  Liken a tensed body to uncooked spaghetti (straight, rigid), relaxed bodies are like cooked spaghetti (loose, wiggly and jiggly).  Use visual imagery to help them tense and relax, this audio script may help. When stressed or worried during the flight, remind each other to use progressive relaxation to help your body tell your mind that all is well.  To learn more about Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR), consult this book: The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook (Davis, Eschelman, & McKay, 1988).

  • Airline attendants are full of helpful advice. Those vomit bags may also come in handy for some much needed anti-panic deep breathing relief.


  •  If your child’s fear is debilitating, or close to being so, it is also a wise investment to consult a local child-oriented mental health therapist to prepare for any upcoming trips—especially if as a parent you, too, suffer from aerophobia.


  • Lastly, clap those hands loud and proud to thank the pilot for your safe arrival on the tarmac.  Be sure to celebrate each of your child’s successes along the journey to conquering their fear—no matter how small the steps or how short the flight—just keep gently moving forward through the fear instead of letting it limit your lives! 

Any advice you'd like to share about how you've helped your child overcome a fear?  We'd love to hear from you!

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