Setting Ground Rules
Dr. Christopher Young, medical director of Wellmore Behavioral Health and Clinical Faculty at Yale University Department of Psychiatry, stresses the importance of setting ground rules before the flight. “There’s not much reasoning that can take place with babies,” he says. Just make sure they are comfortable and well fed. For older children, you can establish in-flight limits and boundaries by using safety as a rationale. For example, “It’s the captain’s rule to keep your seatbelt on during the flight, that running in the aisle is dangerous and that kicking a seat hurts people.” But Dr. Young advises to offer positive alternatives to the “no” (do you want to color? read a book? play hangman?) to swiftly redirect the child’s attention.
Keep Them Busy (But Watch That iPad)
A fact of parenthood: Children are easily bored. One recommended strategy is to keep your children busy so they do not react to the confines of the environment. Parents should be armed with books, developmentally appropriate games (coloring books, Legos, dolls) and electronics. But you can’t just plop these items down on the tray and dive into Netflix. Why? “Parents’ tuning out leads to kids’ acting out,” cautions Dr. Nickels. “You need to hold your child’s attention. Switch up their playtime-reading, stickers, drawing and make snack time an activity, not a detail.” Another potential land mine: hunger. Since a hungry child is a volatile child, it’s essential to have easy-to-transport food (grapes, cheese sticks, goldfish crackers, bars) on hand to keep blood sugar at optimal levels.
About those electronics. It’s tempting to let an iPad or other tablet serve as makeshift babysitter. But, nonstop electronics can backfire. Dr. Young posits that gorging on electronics can induce peevishness and tantrums. Dr. Nickels concurs: “Children do not transition rapidly from digital absorption to reality.” Without parent enforced breaks, kids fall into a daze ignoring hunger, thirst, the need to use the bathroom and exhaustion. Then, when the device is switched off, they go into ”distress mode,” a professional term for a freak out. To avoid overstimulation, set usage limits (“You can watch two cartoons and then have a snack and read for a while”) before handing over the tablet.
Establish a Rewards System
Rewards can encourage good behavior. Dr. Nickels is a fan of the goody bag. She advises filling a small sack with four surprises to be distributed at specific points during the flight. Let your children know about the goody bag but not what is inside. This way, they can focus on a goal. Electronics can also be leveraged as a reward for good behavior. Screen time can be earned by spending “X” amount of time doing other activities.
Use a Flight Attendant as a Buffer
Of course, these strategies are not foolproof. So, what can you do if you are that parent with a child in full blown tantrum mode? You can’t blame fellow passengers for becoming irritated, especially if the parents are ignoring the situation. According to Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, passengers will have more empathy if they see that you are trying to diffuse the meltdown. So, standing up and delivering a statement like “I’m sorry my child is being disruptive, please bear with me” can help.