Fear of flying

The Pediatric Insider

© 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.

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15 Comments on “Fear of flying”


  1. As both an airline captain and licensed therapist, I can assure your readers that when a child expresses fear of flying, it is not about flying. Rather, it is due to fear or anxiety of some other kind, about which the child cannot speak in a more accurate way. Or, since the parent is the cause of the fear, the child must be quite sure he or she does not speak about it in a more accurate way.

    Since a child relies on its parents as the primary source of security, the expression of fear of flying means — unmistakably — that the child does not feel secure with regard to the parents. Though parents may have good intentions, that there is a mismatch in what is being provided and what the child needs to feel secure.

    If this is not dealt with, insecurity will persist. When the child becomes a teenager, there will be efforts to hide or deny the insecurity. Once underground, the problem may become impossible to address. Efforts by the teen to hide the insecurity, may lead to crisis.

    The additional stresses of puberty may become overwhelming. Without sufficient inner resources, a teenager may turn to outer resources to control feelings, outer resources such as drugs, alcohol, attempts to prove fearlessness or other destructive behavior.

    From my point of view, the expression of fear of flying by a child is a blessing if it gets the child into treatment for the real problem. Professional assistance can head off major difficulties during the teenage years.

    For these reasons, I cannot overemphasize how important it is to find a therapist for a child who expresses fear of flying.

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  2. […] and passenger planes take flight. Larger airports may even have areas where children can see that big passenger jets are able to fly without issue. This can go a long way towards helping your […]

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  3. Concerned Mother Says:

    Capt. Tom Bunn,

    I find it interesting that you so quickly jump to “it’s the parents’ fault” which is completely ridiculous. In my case, my daughter is terrified of heights. Are you telling me that she’s not really terrified of heights but instead is feeling insecure with me as her mother and I should put her in therapy to resolve her mommy issues? Seriously.

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  4. When the amygdala releases stress hormones, some adults regulate the hormones and the feelings that result automatically and unconsciously. These adults are able to do that because the appropriate circuits developed during rapid brain growth in the first 14 months of life. These circuits are “relationship dependent.” They self-organize based on what is going on in the child’s life. The young child needs a parent to explore every level of arousal, and to provide regulation during this emotional exploration. As this exploration takes place again and again, the circuits organize to automatically regulate the child.

    When this does not happen, the circuits do not develop, and as an adult, the person must MANUALLY and DELIBERATELY regulate stress. That does not work nearly so well.

    Your daughter may not have mommy issues, but mommy did, nevertheless, fail to provide what your daughter needed to build the regulatory circuits. I’m not saying it is your fault; you may not have been given, yourself, what you needed to get that done.

    And I am not saying genetics are not playing a role, but neuroscience now tells us genetics is 30% and relationship is 70% when it comes to building the circuits that regulate fear, anxiety, panic, etc.

    And, by the way; I did not jump to “it’s the parents’ fault,” but simply point out what neurological and psychological research has determined.

    See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/conquer-fear-flying/201303/trip-emotion-world

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  5. Anonymus Says:

    I hate to intrude, but you ARE implying that it is her fault, or, at least, her family’s fault.

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  6. Every child attaches to its parents. The question is, is the attachment secure or insecure. If the child is secure in its relationship, it is not afraid if its parents are present. If there is a flight, the child has not the slightest fear, for it the parents say it is OK, it is OK.

    It is only when children are insecure that children feel unsafe when – supposedly – being taken care of by their parents.

    If you doubt this, read what Harvard Child Development has to say about this. See http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/

    If you download and read the PDF at http://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/A-Decade-of-Science-Informing-Policy.pdf

    you will read:

    Early experiences in life build “brain architecture,” with simple circuits forming first and more complex circuits building upon them.

    Children develop in an environment of relationships that begins in the family but also involves other adult caregivers. The developmental process is fueled by a reciprocal, “serve and return” process, in which young children naturally reach out for interaction and adults respond—and vice versa.

    As wise parents who finds his child feels insecure in its relationship with the parent will get the child – and probably himself or herself – into long term therapy.

    The unwise parents gets angry at this information and stonewalls the problem. When the child is a teenager, finds the child will not listen to the parent when the child uses drugs and risky behavior to deal with feelings the parent-child relationship did not teach the child to regulate.

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  7. Chris Smith Says:

    If I felt in need of help from a therapist I don’t think that I would consider capt. Tom. His approach seems very unsympathetic and “un-therapeutic”. His answer that a child’s fear of flying has nothing to do with flying but is a symptom of “bad parenting” is completely over the top. My daughter, just turned 4, is terrified of flying. She specifically describes her fear of bumping up and down and being so high”. She is very releieved when we land. I am sure we/she will learn to control this, She has also had fears of fireworks, cows and flies! (and isn’t afraid of the dark, spiders or enclosed spaces). I think that it is not unreasonable to be scared of flying, especially as a child, once you are old enough to realise that somthing actually quite unnatural is taking place. The biggest problem for me is the fact that I cannot properly comfort her due to safety regulations: since turning 2 years old, which is when her phobia started, she has to be fastened into her own seat and is not allowed to sit on my lap during take off and turbulence. I’m sure that if this was allowed it would make a huge difference.

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  8. Chris, I’m sorry you can’t accept responsibility for the obvious fact that something is wrong in your relationship with your daughter, unless, however, she is on the autism spectrum and lacks certain abilities to use relationship for calming. You really need to get professional help for her. If you let this situation continue, you – and she – will pay for it severely in the future.

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  9. Chris Smith Says:

    Both myself and my partner have a wonderfull relationship with our daughter who is also far from autistic! The fact that Tom Bunn instantly makes such ridiculous and frankly insulting diagnoses based on such little information can only lead me to conclude that he is a dangerous quack.
    I found this more useful http://www.childanxiety.net/Fears_Phobias_Anxiety.htm

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  10. If she is not autistic, then the problem is without question due to a problem in the relationship. A secure child simply accepts as safe what the parent accepts as safe. Now, if you, yourself, fear flying, that is a different angle on the problem. But if you are not fearful of flying, the problem is that you are not trusted by your daughter. This is not a “diagnosis.” This is a simple fact. When a child is secure, fear of flying simply does not develop. By the way. In addition to treating fear of flying, I worked for several years in a child guidance clinic. They don’t hire “dangerous quacks.” But, we do in that setting frequently see parents are are dangerous to their children.

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  11. Dr. Roy Says:

    “A secure child simply accepts as safe what the parent accepts as safe.”

    This gross generalization is patently untrue.

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  12. Sorry, Dr. Roy. Read up on your Attachment Theory. If a parent plans a trip on a plane, the thought of whether it is safe of not does not enter the mind of a secure child.

    By the way. As to your advice. Reading a book does not desensitize anyone – adult or child – to the noises and motions of flight – the triggers that cause arousal “bottom-up.”

    Your advice to consider sedating a child with benzos is shocking. Many psychiatrists consider advising the use of benzos to anyone irresponsible.

    Clinical Psychiatry News says, “Use of benzodiazepines for anxiety remains a reality, despite guidelines that recommend against the practice.”

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  13. Dr. Roy Says:

    “Attachment Theory” is hardly the last word in understanding childhood anxiety. Even Bowlby knew it was barely a start.

    “A secure child simply accepts as safe what the parent accepts as safe.”

    Nope, it just isn’t that simple. Can’t always blame everything on the parents.

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  14. Of course the last word on childhood anxiety has yet to be written. But you can gain an understand of the growing concensus on emotional development by reading the following: Dan Siegel’s “The Developing Mind;” Allan Schore’s “Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development;” and “Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self” by Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist and Target.

    For a more condensed study of the subject, refer to the “Resource Library of the Harvard University Center on The Developing Child at http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/

    As to blaming the parents, some authorities in child development are seeking to expand awareness of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that develops during a child’s formative years when the parent-child relationship is pathological. Just as a parent is to blame who physically abuses a child, a parent is to blame who psychologically abuses a child.

    The relational deficits that cause inability to regulate arousal when not in control or able to escape are passed on generation after generation unless there is effective intervention. What Bowlby started has been carried on by Mary Main and others.

    Just as there are those who claim global warming is a hoax, there are those who deny what science has made undeniably clear: that emotional development is relationship-dependent. Yes, genetics and fate also play a role, but with good genetics and an otherwise healthy environment, a good-enough parent-child relationship is essential for healthy emotional regulation to develop.

    Say what you will, having specialized in flight phobia for thirty-five years, there is no question in my mind about this: flight phobia does not develop in a young child unless there is a severe parent-child relational problem.

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  15. Chris Smitj Says:

    Tom Bunn
    I have looked into attachment theory and we definitely fall into the category “secure”. The others, anxious/ambivalent/avoidant/disorganized really are not applicable to our situation at all.
    “A secure child simply accepts as safe what the parent accepts as safe.” !!! Seriously?!! Your sweeping generalizations are way off the mark on this, YOU need to do some serious rethinking.
    I have a few theories of my own:
    You yourself are childless. Otherwise you would never accuse a parent of severely psychologically abusing their child based on a snippet of information about their situation. One would hope that some form of professionalism would make up for this, but that also does not seem to be the case. You have little affinity with children and your SOAR program is not applicable to them. You project your disinterest/unwillingness(profit-based?)/incapability of treating children onto the parents. Hey I can do psychology too!

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