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Don’t fear the tantrum: a child behaviour expert shares advice and strategies for flying with toddlers

Eloise Gibson talks to child development specialist and mum of two Claire Lerner about flying with kids. What should we, and others, expect from children on long flights? And what can we do to make a trip easier?

I’m going to be honest. I’m a parent, and I still fear sitting next to babies and toddlers on planes as much as anyone. On those rare occasions when I fly solo, I peer down the aisle as I’m boarding the aircraft and scan for screaming children near my allocated seat. When I see one, I wince. But after several long-haul flights with my toddler, the wincing is tempered with empathy, or at least as much empathy as I can muster on a plane at 3am. I pull goofy faces at babies and approach struggling parents in the security queue to offer to help unfold strollers, or retrieve teddies. Other kindly fliers — both parents and non-parents — have done the same for me.

My last overnight flight with my son, who was two at the time, got me thinking. It was midnight, hours past his bedtime, and he was struggling to fall asleep on the hard, lumpy seats with a ceiling full of fluorescent lights shining, gestapo-like, into his eyes. Every few minutes, a trolley would wheel past and smack into his feet. He’d just said goodbye to his dad, who he wasn’t going to see again for more than a month. As he wriggled and kicked, I started getting desperate. He really needed sleep, or things were going to go pear-shaped. I looked him in the eye. “GO. TO. SLEEP. NOW.” His eyes teared up. “Mummy. Why are you angry?” he said. I felt awful. But I was also intrigued. Why was I angry? As experiences go, enduring a long-haul flight is about as unsuited to a toddler’s temperament as anything you could dream up. All things considered, he was doing bloody well. Later, I called a child development expert with a list of questions about toddlers and flying, and how parents should handle it.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Claire Lerner is a social worker and child development expert for the Washington DC-based non-profit organisation Zero to Three, where her job is translating the science of baby and toddler development for parents, pre-school teachers and policy-makers. What follows is an edited version of our Skype chat.

Eloise Gibson: I feel like age two, or let’s say 18 months to three, is the worst time for flying. Babies aren’t very mobile, and don’t usually much care where they sleep. Three and four year olds seem to have a better understanding of what is happening, and better self-control. But it seems like everything about being a toddler makes you unsuited to being cooped up for hours. The security queues, the waiting, having to follow a lot of new, strict rules they don’t understand — don’t touch that door, don’t kick, don’t run, don’t be loud, don’t push that button… Is there something special about being two? Am I imagining how tough this is?

Claire Lerner: No, I think you’ve summed up a lot of important points. The reason toddlerhood is so unique and the reason it is particularly challenging for parents is that toddlers are so smart. They are developing language very rapidly, they are able to understand so much about how the world works but at the same time they have very little self-control. The parts of the brain that manage impulses and desires are not nearly fully developed. We know now that this goes into adulthood but certainly when you are aged between one and three, the parts of the brain that are able to control and help you manage emotions are just starting to develop.

But what happens is that this coincides with this amazing development that parents are seeing when it comes to understanding concepts and being able to talk about them, so there is this delta between the expectations that parents have and what toddlers can actually do. While your toddler may be able to totally understand, yes I am supposed to sit in my seat and I am not supposed to touch that, it doesn’t mean they have the ability to stop themselves from doing so. That sort of expectation gap I think is the critical dynamic that makes it very maddening for parents.

Their behaviour sometimes belies their capacities, so the child will even be able to say to the parent, “I know, no running, no grabbing, no pushing,” and then two seconds later they do it. In the logical parent’s mind it seems purposeful and as though the child really should be able to control those impulses. Parents are constantly trying to make sense of what their child is capable of based on what they are hearing, and when they see behaviour that is not consistent with that it becomes very confusing. If your interpretation of the child’s behaviour is that they are purposely misbehaving or they should be able to sit still and be quiet, it’s very natural for parents to get very frustrated and be more harsh and punitive towards the child as opposed to coming from an understanding and teaching approach. So when it comes to airplane travel, if parents had an expectation that was in line with what toddlers can do, it’s still going to be tough — we can’t make that go away — but it would help.

I recently flew overnight with my son, and I found myself basically telling him off for not sleeping. Of course that was the least soothing thing I could possibly do, and I made it worse….

Yes, well the other big body of research that’s so important in this is how much of an impact the parent’s reactions and emotional state has on the child. If you take a parent who is very agitated and annoyed and frustrated and is acting on those feelings, there’s a lot of research showing that that is contagious. There are these mirror neurons in children that pick up on the mood of the parent and react to it, so instead of calming the child it escalates.

If you expect that this is going to be a very challenging experience for them and they are not able to manage their impulses very well and they are really driven more by irrationality than logic, you are primed as a parent to be more understanding and less frustrated and therefore more calming to the child. And you are more likely to come up with strategies that are going to help the child.

Another key variable is your child’s temperament. Toddlers are not a monolithic group, their need for motion and activity really varies based on their wiring. We know from a really robust body of research based on temperament and how children take in information through their senses that it falls along a very big spectrum. I’ve flown a lot recently and seen many children reacting very differently. One variable is their developmental stage. The other is temperament and how they respond to being in an enclosed space. You have some kids who just go with the flow, they don’t need much movement, they are happy to sit an look at books or play with toys and they make their parents look so good. I would walk by those parents when my kids were little and think “what am I doing wrong?” When a lot of it really was their wiring. Some kids feel most calm when they are moving and that’s something we have to tune into as parents.

Aside from the flight, I feel like everything on either side of it is also taxing. Leaving a familiar place or people, the waiting… even just getting through security screening. I’ve seen kids very upset by having to get out of their stroller for screening, or give their teddy up for X-raying.

Yes. The other very important variable is context. If they are leaving someone who is very special to them, for some kids transitions are harder than for others. Some kids are fierce attachers, so you take them to stay with a relative for a couple weeks and they are fiercely attached to that person and now they have to separate, so they are going through a significant psychological challenge. They don’t have the long-term view that an older child might have about when you’re going to see them again or that you can Skype with them. They don’t have the ability to project like that. It’s disruptive and uncomfortable to them. All these things are happening when you go on a plane. And the fourth variable is you as a parent. Research has looked at cortisol levels in the brain, and as a parent’s cortisol level rises, so does the child’s. This is not to scare parents, it should be empowering. Armed with this information you can have a chance of making plane travel less stressful.

Let’s talk about strategies, then. Is there anything you can do to make it less painful? Or do you just have to suck it up?

The really nice thing is that air travel is changing. [US airline] Jet Blue came out with this statement recently that they embrace screaming babies and that’s really important because they are setting a tone that they are an airline that cares about families and doesn’t want to judge parents. As if you need more stress when you already have a screaming child, the last thing you need is feeling anxious and judged by everyone around you. If the flight attendants are acting in a way that’s non-judgemental and helpful it’s contagious, and it makes it very hard for people on the plane to act nasty or to make you feel bad. It’s great if you have an attendant who comes over and says, “I know Jason, it’s sooooo hard, I know, I totally get it, what can we do to help you sit still?” I would engage the flight attendants on your team. When you get on the plane say, “You know what, it’s a really long flight, I’ve got a little guy who loves to move, I know it drives people crazy when kids misbehave but he’s only 24 months old, so I’m gonna try really hard and whatever you can do to help would be amazing.” Ask them for ideas, they do this all the time. You’re showing them that you get it — it’s tough when there is a kid having a hard time.

I saw one dad who had this game with his little girl where when the seatbelt light wasn’t on she would go two aisles then come back, then three aisles then come back. Or walk along the plane counting people, looking at who has red shirts or long hair. There are things you can do to make games that include movement while the seatbelt light is off. And depending on their age you can tell them there are going to be times when that light goes on and we have to stay seated.

With a kid aged between two and three you can anticipate and problem solve with them. Say “We are going to go on a plane and it’s going to be this many hours,” and make it concrete for them, like, it’s the amount of time you are usually in preschool. Between two-and-a-half and three, you have a lot more opportunity to make those analogies because children are becoming much more logical thinkers. Before that, they are not going to make total sense of it but I might still do it. You can’t expect that they will get it but you are just pulling out a lot of different tools to help them feel in control of the experience. For many it’s an unfamiliar experience. They don’t know what to expect and they don’t know when it’s going to end. That strategy won’t work with an 18-month old but you can say, “We are going to do a lot of different things on the plane, we will sleep, we will read books, we will play.” With a two-and-a-half to three year old you can say, “We are going to be on the plane and there will be times when we have to sit, so let’s talk about all the different things we can do.” A lot of people go to the dollar store and get one of those drawstring bags and have them fill it with stuff that’s a special plane kit. Some new crayons or a new little toy, something that feels special for the plane ride.

I’m not going to lie, the last time I flew with my son I let him watch TV for about four hours straight. Surely the rules about toddlers and screen time don’t apply on airplanes?

Ha, yes, well I’ve done a lot of work on digital screen time, in fact I wrote a whole set of resources about the impact of screen time on young children so I’m all about being very mindful. But I’m also a practical person. When it comes to plane travel you have to be realistic. If you think a digital device is going to help them be stationary, it’s not like you are travelling every day.

Decide what you think is appropriate, depending how long your flight is, and then have all these other options. But at the end of the day it’s very different to what I would counsel during everyday life. On a plane you have 200 other people and a lot of other stressors. Try and have some other tools in your tool kit, but I don’t think it’s the worst thing.

About those 200 other people. It’s tough knowing how to set boundaries on planes because, as a parent, you don’t want to start a habit where, if they cry or yell, you give in. But at the same time, as you say, these are unusual circumstances. You’re surrounded by people at close quarters, many of those people are trying to sleep, your kid is tired and stressed, they’re eating badly or eating unfamiliar food. You can’t use the strategies you’d use at home. And if they lose it, there’s nowhere to take them. You can’t leave. It’s not like the supermarket.

Looking at the science of what’s good for parents and kids, at something like the supermarket the ideal is that you set limits that are realistic, so you say, how old is my child and what is he really capable of doing and how well is he able to control his impulses at this age? And, if he’s under three the answer is, very little. So you might say to yourself, I’m going to set up a system. You give them a snack in advance and tell them you are going to give them two choices of something on the shelf they can choose and you do all of this prevention. You tell them they can push the trolley if they stay next to you, and you have all these expectations laid out. At the supermarket, I encourage parents to, for better or worse, make a plan and implement it. If the child then starts running, you say, you had your choice, you didn’t stay, your alternative is to sit in the cart because my number one job is to keep you safe. Now the child’s screaming at the top of their lungs and I encourage parents to just keep moving, you don’t ignore them but you ignore the behaviour and you’re going, “oh look there’s our cereal, wow!” He’s still screaming but you’re moving along and saying, I’m not going to be controlled by this. Maybe your kid screams for 15 minutes and other people don’t like it, but then you leave and your child has learned.

But the supermarket is 20 minutes, not 12 or 20 hours. On an airplane, they are dealing with a lot. The way you laid it out before is so accurate. I have my child development hat of, you don’t want to give in and your child is using all these tactics and you don’t want to reward them for it and have them go, great if I scream I get more chocolate. But this is such a unique experience. I would counsel parents to know in advance how it’s going to be tough for them. In a very empathetic way, put yourself in your child’s shoes and realise how stressful it is to do all this stuff you normally wouldn’t have to do and to have no understanding of why. It’s taking all of his energy to be able to comply with all these rules that he doesn’t understand, and that in itself is very stressful.

So you decide what your parameters are. It might be you’re not going to eat chocolate the whole time, and you tell your child in advance, show them all the snacks you will be taking on the plane, bring a bunch of stuff you know they like and give them choices and then say, okay the chocolate is done, I know you want more but we don’t have any more chocolate. At some point he’ll realise there’s no more chocolate and choose the cheese stick. You have to find a happy medium and not fear the tantrum, but also you want to minimise the chances by having a lot of strategies. You will have certain things you compromise on — maybe it’s treats or screen time. It’s a bit like how, when kids go to their grandparents, they get all this stuff and you can’t control that. Kids know the difference. As long as you stick to what you normally do at home, they will adapt. They may push, but if you stick to your guns they learn. You say, on the airplane you get more screen time because it’s really hard and you can’t go outside but at home that’s not what you do.

And then you need to know your absolute limits, even if he has a tantrum, like you’re not going to let him kick you or pinch you and you’re not going to let him kick the seat in front of you. Those are situations where you may just have to hold him in a bear hug and say, I know, it’s tough. If you do it firmly but lovingly and you’re calming yourself, and maybe reassuring them and singing to them, you can’t do much more than that. There is no perfect answer to getting a toddler on an overseas trip for 12 or 13 hours to be happy all the time.

Do you think the secret to being calm is just accepting the kid may be unhappy for part of the flight?

We just did a huge parent survey and one of the major findings was that parents overestimated, sometimes by more than a year, when their children develop self control. We call it the expectation gap. It reminds me of this awesome episode of (U.S public radio show) This American Life, with a guy who wrote about why you’re going to marry the wrong person. He was explaining the reason marriages often fail is this expectation gap, like if you expect this person to be your soul mate, best friend, perfect parenting partner and great money manager you are always going to be disappointed. Once you change your expectations to be more in line with what is possible people are so much happier.

It’s the same with parents: if you expect your kid to get on this plane and be a little angel and do all the things you tell them, it’s setting you up for feeling like a bad parent and your child for being a bad kid. And when parents feel like bad parents they tend to take it out on their kids. If parents could just say, this is going to be stressful, we are choosing to do it because it’s important to go and be there and see our family, or whatever, and in 12 hours it’s going to be worth it. Prepare, engage the flight attendant and most of all be calm. Constantly say to yourself, he’s not doing this on purpose to make me crazy, he’s just being a toddler and he needs support from me. I’m gonna have all these tools in my toolbox but ultimately there is probably going to be a time when none of it works and he’s just going to need to be held and comforted until he calms and we can move on.

In all seriousness, is there a case for postponing non-essential travel until after a kid turns three?

There is a part of the brain that between three and four you start to see develop in children. If you go into a two year old’s preschool classroom rather than a three year old’s the difference is dramatic because the part of the brain that gives children the ability to calm themselves and the ability to problem solve and manage their emotions and not be so impulsive is all making a leap. The brain drives behaviour so between three and four you see kids grow a lot calmer and be able to problem solve, cooperate and share — all those skill that rely on being able to react, not based on your own needs and feelings, but on the needs of others. That’s huge. That’s why on a plane you’re going to see them understand rules and logic much more after three.

From about two and a half they start to ask “why?” all the time. And that’s because they think about what things mean, they understand there is a reason for things, whereas before that wasn’t the case. Now you can say to them, you have to stay on your seat because of this, or take your shoes off because of that. At two, in preschool when the teacher says, you can’t throw sand because it hurts other people’s eyes, or you have to wear your coat because it’s cold out, they are just doing it — they don’t necessarily understand why. That’s why it becomes so much easier after three.

That’s why the little girl on the flight I mentioned was having it so much easier, because the dad could walk her up and down the aisle and go to the exit row and talk about why you can’t pull the handle and why the plane had a wing and why they had to sit still. That helped her cope. So much of our ability to cope as human beings is understanding the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing and before three they do not have that capacity. They are just uncomfortable and reacting to the world around them.

I think it would be so powerful if, when the flight attendants gets on and says, “Thank you for flying United”, they [also] said, “We have a lot of adorable babies and toddlers on this flight. All of us have been a baby or toddler at one point and a lot of us have had them. It’s stressful for their mums and dads, so let’s do anything we can to make it easier.” It’s a matter of framing it so people are putting themselves in your shoes.

Things have changed. When I was a kid, most of the big trips my parents took they took by themselves. Now parents are less inclined to leave kids, and people live further and further from their families. And planes are smaller. So just acknowledge it is stressful, especially if people around you are angry and mistreating the flight attendants. It’s tough for adults, let alone kids. The key as the parent is feeling calm and not judged. If you feel like everyone around you is pissed and miserable you are going to come down stronger on your child and ironically your child is going to be more revved up and less calm. It doesn’t help anybody to put more stress on parents.

Eloise Gibson is a freelance science, medical and environment writer. Last year she travelled to New York on a Fulbright scholarship to do an M.A. in science writing at Columbia University, taking her husband and son. You can find her on Twitter: @eloise_gibson


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