How can I make flying with kids less stressful?

Erik Fisher
Note that when you are under stress, your children are under stress. You cannot avoid this. Travel is rough enough, but visiting family can add to the undercurrent of your stress. Your children are often a mirror for you, whether you recognize it or not. In my work with children and families, I can confidently say that most of the time that children are having challenges, it is because the parents are also having challenges in some way. Check your own attitude and your feelings about traveling with your children before you leave, and check in with yourself or spouse many times throughout your flight, if necessary. If you are having a tough time with your stress, calmly let your kids know and be honest about it. If you know that you may feel stress before you take a flight, prepare yourself and prepare with different strategies to keep your kids and yourself cool.

Don't blame your kids for your stress. This is your stress, and even if they are doing things to contribute to how you're feeling, be careful not to take it out on them. When parents are in public situations, they're less likely to outwardly lose their temper, however sometimes they may say things or do things to try to quiet their children. Don't make threats or promises that you will not or cannot follow through on. Realize that you are affecting their trust in you and are likely using fear or manipulation to gain control. While this may get you what you want in the short run, it can have long-term consequences on your relationship.

Yes, traveling with kids is challenging. Yes, getting to the airport, dealing with TSA, snotty airline employees (and child-free passengers), delays, car seats and rental cars all add up to be quite ridiculously impossible, at times.

I know of which I speak: Last year, we were trapped in an airport for 11 hours with our kids, then ages six, four and one. The delay meant that we would have to do an unanticipated red-eye flight to the mainland from Hawaii; 5 1/2 hours, and we would arrive at our destination at 5am. And by then I was out of diapers, had one old bottle left, and no food. How did we handle it? I have no idea. I’ve blocked it, like any other traumatic experience!

Seriously, it’s a day (or two) of hell, and you just get through it. If you need help, start by asking airport or airline employees. Many of them will play dumb, but others will be able to help; last year we had to ask four or five different workers for someone to help us get from one terminal to the other with two sleeping kids and 12 bags. Eventually, a guy came with one of those cool electric carts to whisk us to our gate.

We’ve had all sorts of problems with airplane seating; being assigned a "1-4" configuration with three little kids, and other inanities; we just start asking workers (and even other passengers) for advice and help, and eventually, things are usually worked out.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be nice and apologetic to fellow travelers, who often take pity and can make things easier. Look for little, unexpected moments of relief: the computer terminals now available in many airports offer endless interest to toddlers, even if they never get to navigate off the “pay now” page. Get some ice, a couple of cups, and let the little ones at it; I have no idea why, but they seem to love ice in paper cups. Find an uncrowded area away from the action, and let the kids go crazy. Run races, play tag, change stinky diapers…make yourself at home. And when you finally get to your destination, it’s a day of recovery, and then you’re off and enjoying your vacation!

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.