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Parenting on the Fly

By: Erik Fisher, Ph.D.
Image By: Morgan Noguellou, Stock.xchng
November 12, 2007

Ahhh, the joys of holiday air travel.

So much to do before you leave: pack, wrap presents, seal the fruitcake. Then you'll rush around the airport, clear security, and stumble to your gate. But what if you have kids on top of all that? Worried they won't exactly be angels in the airport? It's enough to become an experiment in hair loss. So, just what can you do to keep your sanity (and your hairline) intact?

Many parents know and are prepared for the fact that many air travelers feel a sense of dread when they see infants and young children board a plane. Because of this, parents can be prepared for the worst instead of expecting the best. So just how can you make the most of this situation and make your holiday travel pleasurable for you, your children, and the passengers around you? Here are my "Top Ten Tips and Tricks" to help parents out in this situation.

1. Prepare your kids for the flight. Start to talk about air travel with your kids and what they should expect days in advance. Don't think your child is too young to understand what you are talking about. Try to point out pictures of planes in books, on television or movies, and let them know where their destination is and what they will be doing there. Children often need to be prepared for new events and/or change, and when they know what to expect, they often adapt to it quicker than if they were not prepared. Add the excitement of the holidays to this, and kids can be off the hook.

2. Bring your own snacks/drinks on your trip. And plenty of them. You never know when you may be delayed or stuck on the tarmac or at the gate and food / drink is not available. When your kids feel hungry, there is often no stopping their discomfort, and patience is not a virtue that many of your kids understand. However, on my recent trip I was able to discuss the concept of patience with my 2 year-old daughter. She wanted get on the plane (unrelated to the food issue), but it was not time to board. She saw other people boarding and began to cry and plead to get on the plane. I talked about patience and waiting. I said that patience is when someone waits for something and they choose not to feel upset. She stopped crying and started saying "patience… wait…". The biggest disservice I feel we do with our children is to not believe that they can understand concepts. The second disservice is getting upset when we set our expectations too high.

3. Realize that you are taking your child out of their normal routine. Keep in mind how they respond to change in other situations involving change, and don't expect them to behave any differently. Be aware of your child's temperament (easy, slow to warm up, or difficult or any mix of the three), and know that even if they normally do behave well, they may react out of character when under stress.

4. Note that when you are under stress, your children are under stress. You cannot avoid this. Travel is rough enough, but visiting family can add to the undercurrent of your stress. Your children are often a mirror for you, whether you recognize it or not. In my work with children and families, I can confidently say that most of the time that children are having challenges, it is because the parents are also having challenges in some way. Check your own attitude and your feelings about traveling with your children before you leave, and check in with yourself or spouse many times throughout your flight, if necessary. If you are having a tough time with your stress, calmly let your kids know and be honest about it. If you know that you may feel stress before you take a flight, prepare yourself and prepare with different strategies to keep your kids and yourself cool.

5. Don't blame your kids for your stress. This is your stress, and even if they are doing things to contribute to how you're feeling, be careful not to take it out on them. When parents are in public situations, they're less likely to outwardly lose their temper, however sometimes they may say things or do things to try to quiet their children. Don't make threats or promises that you will not or cannot follow through on. Realize that you are affecting their trust in you and are likely using fear or manipulation to gain control. While this may get you what you want in the short run, it can have long-term consequences on your relationship.

6. Don't expect the friendly passenger to baby-sit your child the entire flight. There are many passengers who enjoy kids and will talk with them and play peek-a-boo for a few minutes, but they don't want to spend their flight with your kids. The hard part is finding the balance. Some parents are almost militant about not letting their kids talk to or play with passengers, because some don't trust others or feel afraid of upsetting fellow passengers. So ask the passenger if they mind your child interacting with them for a few minutes. You can usually glean their feelings from their response or body language. Put a cap on your child's play time with other passengers so as to not over extend their welcome. It also helps your kids learn limits and boundaries. If they want to play later with the passenger, just ask the passenger again. We once had a passenger ask if our daughter could sit on their lap after a few balanced interactions. We were fine with this, because we had spent the past hour talking with them and we were right there.

7. Make sure you have activities to keep your kids occupied. Even if your kids are not interested in what you may have brought or planned. Instead of feeling upset, get creative. The plane is a great place to teach about colors, letters, numbers and also to play "I Spy." One of my favorite games is to play who can be quiet the longest. Make up games, and see if your children can make up games too. The more that your children feel invested in what you are doing, the better response you will get.

8. Use technology in moderation. There are a number of parents who bring DVD players or game systems for their kids, and from the moment that they get on the plane until the moment they land, their kids are glued in front of the DVD player or game system. I am not a proponent of these to the degree that they are often used. You are developing habits that your kids are going to have possibly for a lifetime. Be careful not to develop a tendency for your child to bury themselves. The plane flight is a great time to interact with your kids. You have a captive audience. Make sure you pay attention to all of your kids. While kids who are younger may need attention for their needs, older kids also require attention and communication. Take the time to talk to your kids about school, friends, dreams, and hopes.

9. Create an area where your child can move. You don't have to keep them tethered to their seat, and you don't want to let them wander the plane. Let them know their boundary and have them stick to it. Some kids cannot sit in their seat for an entire flight, and if you expect them to, you are setting all of you up for failure. Give your kids a little space to be kids, but put limits around it. If they want to stand or move a little, show them their area to move around in when the seatbelt light is off. If it is time to sit when the seat belt light is on and they do not want to, have a consequence in place. If your kids get upset and cry or scream, you have to be willing to weather this storm so that they understand the limits of their behavior. Keep in mind that you are setting the standard not only for this flight, but for all future flights.

10. Remember that your kids are only young once. See the wisdom in creating positive memories, especially on these special events and seasons. Find the joys in your children and bring that energy into your experience, not just on your flight but everyday.

Erik Fisher, Ph.D. has been a public speaker and family therapist for 13 years and is the author of The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With (Ovation Books, October 2007). He has been featured on CNN, NBC, FOX and has been a guest contributor to webmd.com, Psychology Today, Marie Claire, and Redbook. He lives with his wife and child in Atlanta, Ga., where he runs a private psychology practice for children, adults, couples, and families. To learn more, please visit erikfisher.com.

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