Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights

All parents dread their kids screaming whilst out in public. Unlike a supermarket tantrum, it isn’t quite so easy to remove a child from the situation whilst in a metal tube several miles up in the air.

It can be one of the most challenging parts of parenting and one of the most challenging parts of flying. 

How do you manage, promote and reward good behaviour on a flight? 

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights

We spoke to Dr. Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, an Early Childhood Psychologist, Consultant, Author of The Tantrum Survival Guide and most importantly a mother to get some tips on travelling with kids.

JetKids: What is the most important advice you can give us when it comes to making travelling with children easier?

Rebecca: There are 3 overall points to remember when preparing for a journey with young children.

Keep Calm

Firstly, children smell anxiety, if you are unsure of yourself or when you are afraid. It is really anxiety provoking for a child to do something new and unusual like going on a plane. So to feel somehow like their parent is uncomfortable about how they might respond or behave during the flight is particularly nerve-wracking.

And so I think one of the key, main points would be that parents have to do whatever they need to do to stay calm and regulated.

What do you need to do so you can feel calm and confident in order to project that for your kid?

They need to feel like you’ve got this. If you feel secure and confident then that can be transmitted to them. 

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights
No Right Or Wrong

The second take on is that there is no right way to do this. Every kid is different. Every family is different. If you can come up with a rational way to explain why you feed your child M&Ms non-stop through a flight then no one should judge. There might be a child for whom this is the only way to get through a flight. Lighten up and go gentle on yourself. 

Team Kid! 

And the final point is the idea about what we should do when other passengers are looking. It is similar thing with supermarket lines. What you do when people are looking at your kid and looking at you as if you are a bad parent? What a lot of parents do, and completely understandably, is that they communicate somehow either explicitly or through their body language that they are on the team of the other passengers. They roll their eyes as if to say “yeah my kid is a nightmare” so that they feel less judged. But the problem is that your kid really needs you in this moment and your kid senses that on some level you just throw them under the bus.

It’s hard to not care when someone is judging you and your kid. Therefore you should prepare for the potentiality that it may happen. Have a mantra for this; you’ll never see these people again; only you know your kid; or whatever that will get you through because your kid needs you. Don’t need to spend your time and energy on the other people on the plane. 

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights
You’re doing fine!

What a tantrum is, in its most basic form, is an overwhelming emotional experience. Maybe your kid just hates to be confined to small space. Or perhaps your kid is nervous because they have never done it before. It could even be that your kid is just testing limits. Whatever it is your kid is having some emotional experience that they cannot handle without acting out and so the best thing you can do is be calm and confident for your kid. If people start making comments and you start feeling ashamed, your kid will pick up on this and it will just make things worse.

JetKids: What would you say if the tantrum has got to the point where it is just full on screaming, would you still say the same? You’ve tried everything and nothing is working.

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights

Rebecca: Yes, nothing else is going to work other than to stay calm. It might be that nothing works. Be empathetic. Be on the same team, work through the issue and perhaps explain that you are also finding the plane journey difficult; “sweetie, I understand, my legs are hurting too, here you can squeeze my hand.” 

The best thing you can do is to stay calm and know that this is going to pass. They are not going to be screaming forever. Try figure out what the issue is. If you can’t solve it for this flight, perhaps you will for the next flight. 

JetKids: In preparation for a flight, what can be done to limit any behaviour? 

Rebecca: Get a book about flying. You can talk about what is going to happen on the plane. How you’ll be expected to sit still and not get up. How your ears might start to hurt on a plane. What can you do instead? What activities do they want to do? Ask your child in advance, and explain the issues in order for them to anticipate what might come up. For example, getting a pain in their ears will be far less scary if they have been told in advance that this might happen. Start a week or so before the flight, depending on the age of the kid.

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights

JetKids: Can we resort to bribery on a plane? 

Rebecca: First of all, I like to highlight the difference between a bribe and a reward. A reward is something that is promised before any bad behaviour starts. For example, “We’re going on a plane and if you stay quiet or sit still you’ll be able to have the packet of M&Ms before we land.” The bribe is when you wait for the bad behaviour to start and use a piece of candy so that the behaviour stops.

I think with travel it is less relevant to stress about bribes than with a grocery store – unless if you are going to travel all the time. The only reason to think about it is if you think your child is going to act that way because they are going to get a candy. I think that happens less than parents think. Especially during a flight, this is unlikely to be why they are screaming. If you need to give your child a cookie to get them to chill out on a journey, then fine!

It depends on the kid, it depends on the situation, but the bigger risk is that parents get wrapped up in right and wrong. This results in communicating unsureness. That is a bigger risk than giving a few more cookies than they would at home.

Ask the Expert: Tantrums on Flights

JetKids: We had a question from a customer who said they were worried about giving their child an iPad during a flight, how much screen time is acceptable during a flight? 

Rebecca: There is no one size fits all when it comes to screen time or parenting methods in general. No addiction will happen after one use. If you don’t fly so frequently there is no need to worry about the any long-lasting effects from using a screen. 

Be intentional about what limits you’ll set for the use of the screen and make that clear. For example, “you are allowed to use this iPad after take off and until the captain says we are about to land.” As long as that expectation is clear, that is fine. 

Most importantly, though, we must remember that our children are people. What do most people like to do on a plane? They like to watch a movie. Why can’t kids do the same? It’s always good that children learn how to cope with boredom, but there is no need to introduce it on a 9 hour flight. Especially when they see their parents on their phones. If you don’t want to give your child a screen during a flight, make sure the rule applies to yourself as well. You’ll also need to make sure you have a back up plan on activities for your child and get involved with those activities. 

Unless you are travelling every single day, it is unlikely your child will get addicted from using the screen. 

JetKids: Any last words of advice? 

Rebecca: The bottom line for a flight to go well is that everyone is calm and content. If you need to do things that you wouldn’t normally do, then do. 

JetKids: Thank you Rebecca! As a parents ourselves this has been really helpful. We know that this is going to make a lot of flights go much smoother! 

Rebecca and her sons by a lake.
Dr Rebecca Schrag Hershberg and her boys

You can read more about what Rebecca has to say on her website.

You can follow also Rebecca on Facebook and on Instagram.