Coping With a Fear of Flying

Airliners at gates and Terminals at JFK,NY
Michael H / Getty Images

Fortunately, most kids are excited by plane trips and seldom waste a moment worrying that they're five miles above safe solid ground. But given that one out of six Americans reportedly has a fear of flying on planes, some of these people are bound to be children—maybe yours.

For some adults, fear of flying becomes so acute that they enroll in courses to overcome their phobia. Hopefully, a frightened child can be gently helped to enjoy the ride. Here are some tips for dealing with the fear.

Talk About the Problem

It's never a good idea to dismiss a child's frights with glib reassurances. Talk to your child about any worries about a plane trip; often, it can be a release simply to express their anxieties.

  • DO: give your child a chance to speak about any anxieties they might have.
  • DON'T: influence your child with your own concerns about security.

Underlying Causes

Some psychologists suspect that a child's fear of flying might represent some underlying anxiety. For example, about a divorce or other family difficulty.

It's hard to probe into painful areas, but children are sometimes ready to share their problems if given the opportunity. At least give the child the chance to speak about any problems bothering him.

The Statistics Don't Really Help

Even with adults who have a fear of flying, it does little good to argue that vastly more people die in car crashes than in planes. As the nervous flier sees it, even if only one person in 10 million dies in a plane, that one person could still be him! And you may end up scaring your child about car travel.

Learn How the Plane Operates

Often, anxiety is reduced by understanding how the plane flies, what turbulence is, etc. Find a kid-friendly page online, such as Dynamics of Flight, at the NASA site.

Kids might also wonder: why do planes need to fly so high? Basically, the air at 30,000 feet is less than half as dense as the air at 5,000 feet; the plane can move faster through thinner air and needs less fuel. Also, conditions are smoother above the clouds.

The Day of the Flight: Eat Nutritiously

Avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates. Don't fall into the trap of your nervous child with too many treats: this could be a recipe for a jittery mood.

Don't Rush

Arrive at the airport in plenty of time: rushing will increase the child's anxiety. Take it easy, be relaxed!

Bring Along Plenty of Fun Things to Do

AKA distractions for a fearful child. Bring along some amusements, maybe even wrap 'em up as presents; triple-wrapping multiplies the sense of fun.

Bring some drinks and snacks too: passengers sometimes wait an hour for flight attendants to serve drinks; this wait can stress out a nervous child.

If Turbulence Hits...

"Captain Tom" at Fear of Flying has advice:

"First you need to know that turbulence is a problem for people only because people think turbulence is a problem for the airplane. Actually, the airplane couldn't be happier than when in turbulence. It just doesn't bother airplanes, only us who think it bothers airplanes."

Turbulence is natural in the skies. If you're caught in turbulence, says Captain Tom: "Practice matching every down with an up." We usually don't notice the "ups" because we're afraid of the "downs" (our instinctual fear of falling). But the "falls" are balanced by upward motion, too.

Thunderstorms

Thunderstorms can frighten kids even on land. Your child may be reassured to know that:

  • the aircraft radar can determine the size and intensity of storms
  • pilots generally avoid thunderstorms, but going through a storm isn't dangerous
  • a lightning strike won't hurt the airplane or penetrate inside. You're safe from lightening in the plane (whether it's flying or on the ground.)

Interestingly, most planes do get hit by lightening about once a year. (Not that you have to tell your child that!) The lightning bolt's electricity flows along the airplane's aluminum skin and into the air. Read more at USA Today.