Flying with an anxious child - 7 potential flashpoints for trouble

Many kids (and adults) struggle with anxiety when traveling by plane. My son, now 10, would become very anxious whenever we got to an airport or boarded a plane when he was younger (he's been traveling by plane at least once a year since he was 10 months old), even though he has always been interested in and fascinated by planes. The last few years, he's become much more able to deal with that anxiety, and his fears have subsided somewhat, but he is still not a completely relaxed air-traveler.

I think that one of the best ways a parent can help an anxious child, is first of all to be prepared for the anxiety so that any "outbreaks" do not catch you off-guard. Being prepared makes it easier to stay calm, and in turn easier to help your child calm down.

Here are some of my thoughts and tips about seven situations during your trip that can potentially trigger problems for a child that is anxious about flying. These are all trouble-spots that I've had personal experience with when traveling with my own children.

1. Parting with your luggage at check-in
To an adult, this might not seem like a very big deal at all: put your suitcase on the conveyor, then pick it up at your destination. For a child, who might not yet know the particulars of how luggage is handled on a flight, this can be a very big problem. My son would sometimes cry, cling to the suitcases and refuse to let go of them at check-in. Part of the reason why was that he was worried he'd never see those bags again.

To make this step easier, prepare your child ahead of time. Tell them that your luggage will go on the same plane, and will arrive at the same place as you do (then hope it does not get lost in transit...). Also, letting your child help put some name-tags on the suitcases, and help you put the luggage on the conveyor, might also help.

2. Going through security
Going through security can be a stressful experience for all travelers. There are often lineups , and you might have to remove shoes or other items of clothing. My kids are sometimes a bit reluctant and fearful of going through the metal detector on their own.  If there are two adults traveling with the children, it does help if one of them goes through first. If you're traveling on your own (as I have done on several occasions), you might have to gently push them ahead of you, and hope the staff at the metal detector are helpful and encouraging.

Another problem for kids can be that they find it difficult to part with their carry-on, including any safety blankets and stuffed animals they've brought, and put their belongings through the x-ray machine. Both my kids have had minor or major panic attacks at security for this reason. Explaining exactly what is going to happen before you get to the x-ray machine and metal detector usually helps reduce those fears.

3. Getting settled in your seat
This was one of the biggest flash-points for trouble when my son was younger. Sitting by himself (rather than on my lap) and putting on a seat-belt he didn't necessarily want to put on, would often cause him severe fear and anxiety. On one flight, he refused to put his seat-belt on so loudly and strenuously that I feared we'd end up delaying the flight.

What worked for my son was mainly just experience: as he got older and more used to flying this anxiety subsided. In the moment, when he was almost terror-struck, what worked was basically just to hold him as best I could, hug him and quietly talk to him to reassure him. Occasionally I would have to strap on his seat-belt while he was still very fearful, and those were not feel-good parenting moments, but holding him close as he sat next to me, and leaning over to comfort him did help us both.

As always: talking about what is going to happen and why ("you need your seat-belt to be safe") ahead of time is helpful both in the short-term and long-term.

4. Take-off
There are a lot of strange stuff going on during take-off: loud engine noises, bumps on the runway, air rushing around the plane as it climbs, changes in air pressure, and so on. If your child is scared of flying (and even if they're not usually frightened), it can be a rather intense and scary experience. My daughter, who is not that scared of being on a plane in general, sometimes holds my hand very tightly and hides her face in my shirt during take-off.

Be prepared for this. Hold your child. Talk about what the different noises are and what is happening: "We're going out on the runway. We're waiting our turn. The engines are starting up" And so on. Reading about airplanes and airplane noises before your trip can also help.

5. Landing
Just like during take-off, there is a lot going on when the plane starts to descend. Wings change shape, the landing gear thumps as it comes out, engine noises increase, and the change in air pressure often becomes really noticeable. All of this can be extremely stressful for a child, especially an anxious one.

Be ready for this. Talk to your child about what is happening and what is making all those noises. Hold their hand, and hug and comfort them as best you can while you both remained strapped in. Being ready with a favourite comfort-item like a stuffed animal or blanket can also help. Chewing gum, sucking on a pacifier or bottle (or maybe a lollipop), can help with the ear-pressure.

6. Noises and turbulence during the flight
I think pretty much everyone that travels on a plane gets at least a little nervous when there's turbulence during the flight. I know both of my kids do. To help them, I try to stay calm myself, and explain why the turbulence is happening. Even a simple explanation like: "It's just some bumpy air, just like a bumpy street", seems to help at least a little bit. Other than that, it's just hugs and hand-holding.

7. Getting off the plane
The mad crush of passengers getting out of their seats and standing up in the aisle waiting for the airplane doors to open can cause real stress and anxiety for kids. Children might be very impatient to get off the plane, and might not understand clearly why they can't do so. If you can, and you're not in a big hurry for a connecting flight, then try to remain seated until most people have cleared out of the plane. That doesn't always work with eager kids (like mine).

The main thing I've found that calms my own children down in this situation is once again to talk about what is happening and why. I explain that the crew is waiting until everything is ready for the passengers to get off the plane, that doors must be opened, maybe stairs have to be brought over, and so on.

To reduce stress and anxiety when you're disembarking, it also helps if you've taken your kids to the bathroom before the plane lands. Otherwise, the moment when everyone is standing up waiting to get off the plane, seems to be when my children suddenly REALLY need to go, and then it's pretty much impossible to get to a bathroom.

12 cities around the world to visit with kids

Stockholm, Sweden
My family has visited the capital of Sweden a few times over the years (I have family there), and it's a great place to go with kids. Easy to walk around, nice parks, and lots of kid-friendly sightseeing destinations like Skansen, Gröna Lund, and the Old Town.

Vancouver, Canada
This is my family's home town, and it is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world (though I guess I might be biased!). There are lots of outdoor activities all year round with local ski hills, lots of beaches, great playgrounds, and fantastic hiking trails. Great places for kids include The Vancouver Aquarium, Science World, and Stanley Park.

Reykjavik, Iceland
A few years ago my family used the free layover option with Iceland Air when traveling home to Canada from Sweden, and spent two nights in Reykjavik. It's a great place to visit with lots to see and do in the surrounding area, and it's also a city that is small enough that it is easy to get around on foot. The local zoo was a definite highlight for the kids on our trip.

Rome, Italy
I've never been to Rome, but it's one of those places I would love to visit with my family. Seeing the sights, especially the old Roman sites, and experiencing the local cuisine, ice cream, pasta, and pizza would definitely make for a grea trip.

Paris, France
Such a beautiful city, and so much to see and do. I'd love to explore the streets, parks, churches and markets with my kids, and also take them to places like Versailles, and Le Louvre to experience architecture and art.

London, England
This is one of my favourite cities in the world. I want to bring my kids here to explore the shops, parks, markets, and restaurants like I did when I was a teenager, and to experience the wonders of The British Museum, The Museum of Natural History, and Westminster Abbey.

New York, USA
One of those cities we've all seen in movies and TV-shows, but that I have never seen with my own eyes. This is a place I'd love to go just to experience the different parts of the city, head up to the top of the Empire State Building, explore the different neighbourhoods of the city and also the arts: a few plays and shows with the kids would be a lot of fun.

Cairo, Egypt
A very long time ago I traveled through Egypt and also visited Cairo. It's an amazing place, and taking my kids here would be a lot of fun. The pyramids, the Cairo Museum, and maybe a trip on the Nile would be things I'd love to do with my kids.

Tokyo, Japan
Both my kids are very much enthralled by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki's movies, and are already fascinated through those movies by Japanese culture and Japanese food. I'd love to take them here for some great food, some interesting shopping, and a lot of sightseeing.

Athens, Greece
There is so much great history in this city, and I'd love for my kids to get a chance to experience that up close. Just walking through The Acropolis with them would be amazing. What a way to make ancient history come to life!

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
After many repeated viewings of the movie "Rio", my kids are very much fascinated by the whole idea of a the "carnaval". A visit to the beautiful beaches, some samba, and a lot of sightseeing around this beautiful city would definitely be on my to-do list. Going during the carnival would be somewhat crazy with kids, but maybe when they're slightly older.

Sydney, Australia
Australia is high on my list of places I want to go with my family, and Sydney would be a must-see on such a trip. Bondi beach, the local zoo and aquarium, some great Australian food, a boat trip, and of course lots of jokes about 42 Wallaby Way (from Finding Nemo) would also be on our to-do list.

Why I chose the flight I did for my family - thoughts & tips

Our destination in Sweden.
I recently booked tickets for my family to fly to Sweden this summer, just like we've done the last few years. We had several flights to choose from, and as usual, price was one of the biggest determining factors, though it was not the only one. Here are some of the thoughts I had while booking our trip:

Vancouver International Airport was not an option
We live just outside Vancouver, so our "home airport" is Vancouver International, but flights from there to Sweden were simply too expensive for the four of us to even consider.

Sea-Tac airport was a better alternative
Driving down to Seattle does take about 5 hours (plus you have to factor in wait-times at the border), so it's a substantial drive, but when flights are significantly cheaper it still makes sense to do it.

Good flight-times are important when flying with kids
I actually did not pick the cheapest flight for our trip. The cheapest flight was one that went through Paris, but there were some problems with it. On the way to Sweden, we would have had to over-night in Stockholm because the flight arrived so late that there were no connecting flights to northern Sweden that day.

On the way back to Canada, we would had to stay over one night in Paris. Also, on the way to Stockholm, we would have had to wait at the airport for 5 hours. That would add up to a lot of expenses for food, lodging, and it would also be very exhausting when traveling with the kids. With the Iceland Air flight we picked, we only have 45 minutes between flights in Reykjavik.

A good airline and a good airport can be a deal-maker
 Like I mentioned, we only have 45 minutes between flights in Reykjavik. That might sound like not enough time, and if it were any other airline and airport, I would probably agree. However, I know from experience (this will be the fourth time we travel with Iceland Air), that
  • Keflavik airport in Iceland (the one stop on our way to Stockholm) is relatively small and easy to get around, so getting from one gate to another is easy.
  • Iceland Air will wait for incoming passengers if at all possible before departing the next flight, mainly because they operate both of the flights that we (and hundreds of other travelers) are traveling in on
  • lineups are usually not a big problem at Reykjavik airport.
In this case then, my previous experience with the airline and the airport we're connecting through, made me more inclined to pick a flight that I might not have picked otherwise.

I used a travel agent because it makes it easier
My travel agent is very helpful and very reliable. She got a us the seats we wanted on board, she checked to see if it made a difference to the price if we left a few days earlier or later, and she shopped around for different travel insurance options. All these things I know I could do by myself, but having someone else do it for me really helps.

Final thoughts:
I am so glad that in today's world, I can travel with an electronic ticket, delivered via email, rather than with the old-style "booklet of paper vouchers" that I remember from way back when I first started traveling by plane.

10 stories & books for kids from all over the world

I'm a big believer in preparing my kids for travel, and educating them about the world, by reading about destinations as well as planes, trains and automobiles. Reading stories set in different countries and cities is one way to do it. Another way is to simply read stories from a certain part of the world, such as fairy-tales and myths, and get to know another country's culture better.

Here are some kids' books from all over the world that can help spark your children's interest in the wide world around them.

Vancouver, Canada - Mister Got To Go: The Cat That Wouldn't Leave
This story is set right in downtown Vancouver, and features one of the city's landmarks: The Sylvia Hotel near the beach in English Bay.

Stockholm, Sweden - Karlson on the Roof
Reading Astrid Lindgren's books is a great way to get a feel for Swedish culture and traditions. Her books are hugely popular in Sweden. The stories about Karlson (a very obnoxious little man who can fly and lives on a roof-top), take place in Stockholm, and could be a nice way to prepare for a trip to that city.

Paris, France - Madeline
This classic book for kids is just delightful and features many of the most famous spots in Paris. I'd bring it along on the trip if I took my kids there!

Native American, USA - Grandfather Buffalo
This is a beautiful tale about family and different generations helping each other, set in the North American prairies.

Mumbai, India - The Road to Mumbai
This is an entertaining tale of a girl names Shoba, and her monkey Fuzzy, who are traveling to a wedding in Mumbai. Gorgeous illustrations throughout.

Africa - Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales
This collection of tales features stories from all over the African continent, all chosen by Nelson Mandela himself.

Cornwall, UK - The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence
For kids who are a little bit older, tweens and teens, this series of fantasy books by Susan Cooper is a great read. The books weave in bits of Celtic folklore throughout, and also strands of the King Arthur legend. They are all set in modern day (or rather 1970s) Britain, and feature many real places and towns there.

Italy - Strega Nona
This is such a fantastic picture book, and even includes some Italian words and phrases. A great book to read aloud.

Japan -  My Neighbor Totoro Picture Book
Based on the classic kids' movie "My Neighbor Totoro", directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this picture book tells the same story of two sisters, and their adventures with the magical creature Totoro. It all takes place in rural Japan, and it's one of my kids' favourite stories.

China - Monkey King
The stories about the Monkey King and his exploits and adventures are very famous in China, and there are many books about this old-time "super hero". This book is beautifully illustrated by award-winning illustrator Ed Young.

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