Expert Advice

What To Do When Your Kid Is Terrified Of Flying — And Your Family Travel Depends On It

Your guide to navigating this common, totally normal fear.

A mother comforts her child on an airplane.
RyanJLane/Getty Images

If your summer travel plans include taking the whole family on a plane, there’s a good chance you’re experiencing a lot of emotions. Traveling with kids is no picnic, and if you’ve got a kid who is terrified to fly, your stress levels are sure to spike.

Maybe your child has never flown before and is experiencing jitters about the whole thing, or maybe your kid remembers the time the plane hit turbulence and is scared of it happening again. What can you say or do to encourage them without traumatizing them? After all, you need to keep your strength and sanity from the check-in line to your final destination.

Pre-Flight Check-In

Your first step should be to chat with your kid, ideally well before your departure date. It’s also worth noting their fears are totally common, as Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, psychologist and media adviser for Hope for Depression Research Foundation, explains. “Anxiety is a normal emotion, and all children may experience anxiety at any age. However, fears and phobias start becoming more common when children are able to verbalize their thoughts and emotions and begin to think in a more complex way.”

What does this mean? “We may see these specific fears as young as age 4 and all the way up to teenage years,” Lira de la Rosa notes. “So, it is important to consider the child’s age as the fear may manifest itself differently based on their cognitive and developmental level.”

There are many things your child might be afraid of, from “navigating the maze that is an airport to adjusting to all the sights and sounds of being on an airplane,” says Lira de la Rosa. “One of the most common fears relates to turbulence and any discomfort with air pressure changes during the flight. Children may not know what is happening, and discomfort with these two issues may cause increased anxiety as they try to make sense of their physiological/body responses.”

This type of response is expected. In fact, it stems from the human instincts to self-preserve and survive.

“When we experience any physiological discomfort, our bodies are wired to send alerts to our brain that danger is lurking,” he adds. “This happens in children as well, and it can be even scarier for them when they are flying for the first time and do not know why their bodies are feeling odd/different.”

Tarah Chieffi, senior family writer at The Points Guy, notes that two of her three children are susceptible to airsickness, with her youngest always getting nervous that it will happen again.

“Additionally, children may also experience fear and worry about the overall process that entails going through an airport from checking in, boarding, and deplaning,” adds Lira de la Rosa. “There is a lot of stimulation at airports from many people, including the TSA, police, police dogs, etc. All of this can cause a child to feel overwhelmed if they do not know what to expect when they arrive at an airport.”

Along with an open ear, Lira de la Rosa recommends parents explain the flying process, providing “specific details or an overview of the airport process all the way from boarding and deplaning.”

Prior to boarding, Chieffi suggests ensuring there are “no surprises,” adding, “work with your kids to have a plan if something comes up. For example, tell them that chewing gum or sucking a lollipop can help with painful pressure in their ears and bring some with you. You can watch educational YouTube videos together that explain air travel in a way kids can understand.”

Lira de la Rosa recommends telling your kid about a time you felt nervous on a plane so they know they’re not alone in their worries. “Parents should also normalize their child’s feelings, ensuring that the child feels heard and that they know they can talk to you at any time about their fears,” he says.

Pack Your Bags

“Additionally, parents can also prepare their children for the upcoming flight by selecting various distractions for the date of travel,” he adds. “For example, parents and children can pick out favorite snacks, games, and other activities they can do while they are at the airport or while they are flying. Plan a ritual or process for what to do at the airport and when they feel anxious on the plane. Distractions such as toys, games, and snacks are helpful, but so is helping the child learn basic breathing techniques to practice before they fly.”

Lira de la Rosa suggests packing their favorite:

  • Books
  • Video games/toys
  • Headphones for watching movies or TV shows
  • Snacks or foods that are allowed on the plane
  • Coloring books or other art-related activities
  • Comforting blankets or plush toys

Wheels Up

Once on the plane, Chieffi suggests reminding them that “flying is the best way to get to some of the fun things they want to do” and that any uncomfortable feeling is only temporary and will pass upon landing — if not sooner.

Generally speaking, “I think the worst thing you can do is not listen to their concerns,” she says. “Even if you don’t have a choice but to fly, you still want them to be heard and feel comforted. Let them know that most flights go off without a hitch, and one bad experience doesn’t mean their next one won’t be great.”

What you definitely don’t want to do, agrees Lira de la Rosa, is make your child feel silly for their fears. “I would discourage parents from saying anything that minimizes or invalidates their child’s emotions, such as, ‘It’s not that bad’ or ‘You’ll be fine.’” These only contribute to shame, which you want to avoid at all costs.

Instead, he recommends saying things like:

  • “I know you’re scared about flying, and that’s OK. I’m here to listen and talk about it whenever you want.”
  • “Many kids your age feel anxious about flying, too. Why don’t we talk about what makes you anxious so we can work on helping you feel less anxious?”
  • “I want you to know that you are going to be safe, and I will be there for you the entire time.”

Baggage Claim

If your child exhibits signs of anxiety beyond your air travel plans, Lira de la Rosa suggests reaching out to a therapist who can work with them, either in the long term or for a few sessions, on some preventative techniques to help manage this specific anxiety.

Some signs to look out for:

  • Your child is having bad dreams or nightmares regularly.
  • Your child seems to be experiencing more anxiety and fears the more you talk to them about flying and navigating the flying process.
  • Your child seems to be experiencing appetite or sleep difficulties as a result of the anxiety.
  • You are beginning to feel overwhelmed and losing patience with your child because you can’t seem to help them feel better.

There’s no shame in seeking professional support, either for yourself or your littles... no matter how big or small the issue might seem.