A World Traveling 9-year-old with a Fear of Flying

Our daughter has been to 27 countries in her 9 years and along with getting car sick, sea sick and train sick, she has developed a deep fear of flying.

 


 

Travel sickness was going to be expected of our 9-year-old world traveler, but we never thought she would develop such a fear of flying. We sure found out when we flew from Paris to New York.

During our World trip, Spring has been very sick on all modes of transport.

We were delayed returning our camper van in Turkey because Spring was so sick that I had to walk along the side of the road with her while Winter slowly stalked us.

Our flight from Bangkok to Sri Lanka included a stop off in Mumbai. Spring did really well the entire flight but couldn’t hold it when we landed and was sick all over the carpet in the transfer lounge.

Travelling on a public bus in Sri Lanka, from Colombo to Galle and Spring vomited into a plastic bag supplied from other passengers. I had to hold the bag, very tightly I might say, between my legs for the next two and a half hours while she fell in and out of sleep on my shoulder.

A lot of people were sick on the flying dolphin ferry from Skopelos in Greece to the mainland port in Volos. Spring filled about four bags, I really didn’t think she had that much in her.

Even before heading around the world, Spring was sick on the water cat heading out to the Great Barrier Reef, sick many times on our flight back from Fiji, but it was rough, and sick on the flight home from New Zealand.

BUT in all of her sickness she has never done this:

We arrived at Charles de Gaul airport and when we tried to check in we were told that we could not board because we didn’t have an outbound flight from America. You see we have booked as we go and most of the destinations have come down to the best accommodation at the right price.

Spring thought that was great and thought that we would return to our hotel. No, we just had to book a flight and show security before we could check in. We chose a flight out of Miami via Mexico City then onto Cuba. Security checked our online confirmation and we were fine to proceed.

Inside the airport, the security was heavy.

There was three guards  in front and three behind.

There was three guards in front and three behind.

We then board the plane and I am seated next to Spring and across the aisle Winter is seated next to Autumn.

The next thing Spring turns to me and whispers, ‘We are going to die!‘ I can’t believe she said it but dismiss her and say, ‘no we aren’t, don’t think like that.’

She continues but this time in a more frantic voice, ‘We are going to die. The plane is going to crash‘.

I am shocked that she is so worried but also slightly amused that she just came out with it. Then I start to think, maybe she is predicting something and panic starts to rise in me. She continues to repeat the sentence over and over and to add credence to her conviction, she tells me, ‘the longer the flight, the more chance we will fall out of the sky and crash.’

Next thing she starts to cry and scream-whisper, you know when someone is screaming but still quiet? She starts to scream, ‘we have to get off the plane because it is going to crash and we are all going to die.’ She even tried to undo her seat belt.

Now we have never watched a plane crash movie or talked openly about recent crashes with her. That said, when we told the girls about our plan to travel the world they both said they didn’t want to fly Malaysian Airlines, there was no hiding from the media on those airlines disasters.

I have by this time started to feel terribly sorry for the level of anxiety she has developed and so I begin to work on ways to calm her down.

This is Spring reacting to how big the Louvre is. It looks similar to her flight anxiety, just add tears.

This is Spring reacting to how big the Louvre is. It looks similar to her flight anxiety, just add tears.


 

These tactics worked for our situation:

Mention the Stats

No, I didn’t try to explain to a 9-year-old that flying was safer than driving in the car because that would only add another mode of transport that she doesn’t like going in. I also didn’t rattle off chance or statistics such as the odds of dying in a plane are 1 in 4.7 million. I found this online at Planecrashinfo.com

I talked to Spring about the many flights she has already taken and how nothing happened on those. The total number of flights she had taken was 25 and this was to be her 26th. I didn’t have that exact number then, but we talked about all the flights and destinations. She began to remember the good times in those destinations and even smiled a bit.

Get emergency exit ready

This sounds strange, but it is something we do on all flights. We retrieve the emergency procedure card from the seat pocket and read over together. Spring likes to know where each emergency exit is and enjoys looking at the pictures. She will then listen to the safety broadcast and watch either the monitor or flight attendant demonstration.

Visualisation

Most ‘Fear of Flying’ sights will list visualisation as a method to overcome anxiety. At wikiHow, they call this ‘guided imagery’. Yet, visualisation is a big word for a small child and I didn’t have the time to define ‘guided imagery’, so I began a discussion around all the things we are going to do when we land. So really this is just like visualisation. Spring likes to talk about the food we are going to eat, the shopping we will do and all opportunities to swim. We will not have an opportunity to swim in New York, but she is ok with that.

Get really comfortable

Spring travels with her ‘teddy’, named er ‘teddy’ and a travel pillow. I take out of her bag all the things she needs to get comfortable so she is able to sleep whenever she feels like it. I also take out her tablet so she can use it to mentally escape from the fact she is flying.

Spring distracted with media on a flight from Beijing to Hanoi.

Spring distracted with media on a flight from Beijing to Hanoi.

The rest of the journey she falls in and out of sleep and just before landing she begins to get excited about New York because her big sister is having her birthday there. So her visualisation or ‘guided imagery’ is working overtime and she is relaxed and no vomiting in sight. Phew.

 


 

 

We always knew Spring didn’t like flying and so have taken many short flights to get around the world and travel on land as much as possible. I believe her anxiety was heightened by the fact that this was our first flight in over 5 months. The last one was Athens to Rome and that was horrible on many other levels.

Victorious Spring after a good flight on Southern China Airlines.

Victorious Spring after a good flight on Southern China Airlines.

This is how we now prepare for flights as opposed to how we used to prepare for them before we left Australia:

We tell both the girls about an up and coming flight. We then answer all of Spring’s millions of questions. She likes to know everything about the flight such as:

When is the flight?

What time of the day?

How long is the flight?

Are we flying over land or water? You can guess why she asks that one.

What airline is it with?

Can we travel by car or boat instead and why not?

After we have answered all her questions, we don’t talk about the flight again until maybe the day before. This gives Spring a chance to stop worrying and when she starts up with the questions again we explain that we have already covered them.

It seems to work, but we were totally taken back by her reaction on our Paris to New York flight.

I will never forget the scream-whisper, wild eyes and words spoken by Spring for the rest of my life.

 

Are you more afraid of flying than my 9-year-old? Tell me about it and how you have worked to overcome the anxiety. Please!

 

6 thoughts on “9 Years old traveling the world with a fear of flying

  1. Is your child autistics? If so, the child will react with fear to anything she does not expect or control. That is typical of autism and has to be worked with. But if she is not autistic, fear of flying indicates a severe problem in the child-parent relationship which prevents the child from (a.) learning to regulate fears naturally (which means automatically and unconsciously) and (b.) from developing secure attachment to the parents. With secure attachment, if the parents plan a flying, the child has no reason to question safety.

    The ability to regulate anxiety is supposed to develop in the first two years of life; its development is “experience-dependent” and based solely on the way the child and its primary caregiver (usually a parent) relate.

    Please, for your child’s benefit, find a therapist to work with so that you will be able to recognize what is severely missing for your child in the parent-child relationship.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Tom. I can see it comes from a place of education and concern. Spring is not autistic nor does she have a problem securely attaching to her parents. Spring is a really resilient child. She gets over things quite quickly, but she also has her own take on the world. Thanks for commenting and your concern. Summer

      1. On one hand you say – and describe in detail – a “deep fear of flying.” On the other hand you say she is resilient and gets over things quite quickly. Is this contradiction apparent to you? All children attach to their parents. By the age of two, securely attached children develop the ability to regulate anxiety automatically and unconsciously. Attached, but insecure children lack this development. Her difficulty regulating emotion is evident to you now as fear of flying.

        The average age on flight phobia onset is twenty-seven. When onset is at the age of nine, it indicates a serious problem. The problem is inability to regulate emotion.

        When a child who cannot regulate anxiety via their INTERNAL resoures becomes a teenager, they will search out and easily find EXTERNAL ways to feel better. Often this means sexual acting out and to substance abuse.

        Once a child finds an acting out activity or a substance that, as far as they are concerned, works to make them feel better, they will have no interest in a parent’s (or a therapist’s) advice, or possibly in anything but feeling better.

        At the present time, you have a window of opportunity to work with a therapist who specializes in childhood psychotherapy (not CBT, or behavioral) and make it possible for her to develop the emotional regulation she lacks. That window will close when she reaches puberty.

        1. Hi Tom, it is not a contradiction, you see that is where her age comes into play. She is nine and not an adult and so with help from her mum she was able to get past it quite quickly. No therapy required. I thank you for engaging and commenting on the blog and wish you luck with your book sales. Summer

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