Fear of flying
© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD
Ms. S. Bird wrote in, “My ex-husband wants to take our kids toEurope, but my 8-year old son is terrified of flying. Really terrified. Last time, on a much shorter flight, he spent the whole time clutching me and muttering ‘I’m gonna die.’ Is there anything we can do to help him get through the flight?”
Flying can be hard on some people, children and adults alike. Face it: you look at that huge metal thing, and you figure there’s just no way it’s going to stay in the air. Heck, I was an engineer, and I still think some kind of magic must be involved. Or maybe invisible sky hooks, or something. But as our rational minds know, decades of flight have shown that flying is much safer than driving.
Not that knowing that really seems to help. People who fear flying really aren’t interested in statistics and explanations of Bernoulli’s Principle and Angle of Attack. What they want is to get back on the ground.
For children who have a fear of flying, my first questions would be to see if this fear is part of a larger issue with generalized anxiety or many other phobias. If so, it may be best to not so much focus on the flying as to try to reduce overall anxiety.
Assuming that it’s really only the flying that’s a worry, there are some good strategies that should help.
Try to defuse fears ahead of time with gradual de-sensitization. Start with easy things, like books about planes and flying, followed by videos (I’d probably avoid this one, at least for now.) If you’ve got a local, small general aviation airport nearby, go have a picnic there are watch the planes taking off and landing. If you’ve got an aviation museum or something like that nearby, go visit, and be sure to encourage your child to sit in the cockpit. After these trips, move up to going to the actual airport and watching the big jetliners. This kind of desensitization works for many specific anxieties—as long as you move slowly up, step by step, getting closer to “the real thing.” Don’t push faster than your child feels comfortable with.
Depending on the age of the child, airplane toys or models or RC planes can also be fun, or maybe a computer flight simulator. Anything that makes plane-related experiences enjoyable can help dispel at least some of the worry.
Once you’re close to the actual flight, you can try visualization—sit with your child and talk through the steps of getting on the plane, sitting down, what it sounds and smells like, and what it feels like when the plane takes off. Talk about the little cart of soda and teeny peanut packets. Of course, you’ll also plan to bring whatever electronic gizmos best distract your child, like an iPad to watch a movie.
How parents react to the worry can also help—or make matters worse. The best way to respond is calm and matter-of-fact. Being overly reassuring, especially if accompanied by a worried or tearful tone, can make anxiety worse. It’s also a bad idea to try to completely blow off the worry, or explain that it’s stupid or babyish.
Good: “You’ll be OK, I’ll be here will you.”
Bad: “Oh baby I know you hate flying and you worry so much and it’s so hard on you and mommy is here and oh you poor thing…”
Good: “I know this is rough. You’re doing OK.”
Bad: “You just don’t need to worry about this. You’re acting stupid.”
Good: “You want a snack? I think I have some gum.”
Bad: “If you would just calm down, you’d be fine. Do you see anyone else freaking out?”
If none of this seems to be helping, your remaining options include visiting with a psychologist, and considering using medication. I can’t give specific advice about prescription medicines here, but there are tranquilizers available (similar to Valium) that can be used safely. They are NOT miracle drugs—if a child is frantic and upset, they may not work at all—but they can certainly “take the edge off,” and may help a lot with a child (or adult) who’s made some progress but still needs some help. Talk with your pediatrician about specific medicines, how they’re used, and side effects that you might see. I sometimes advise trying a “test dose” well before the flight, so parents have an idea of what to expect from these medicines.