Airplane Travel with Toddlers: Nine Out-of-the-Box Strategies

Before I had kids, vacation started the moment I sat down on the airplane. That all changed when I started traveling with toddlers.  And how!

When traveling with toddlers, boarding a flight signals the beginning of the biggest challenge of the trip: trying to confine little people with the need for speed into one small space for hours on end. And keep them quiet.  T’ain’t natural. Talk about a set up for parental frustration.

A mother of two rowdy toddlers who are barely two and almost four just spent an entire session of parent coaching with me, crafting a plan to get through a flight with the kids without losing her cool.  We won’t discuss her husband who gets really tense if the kids act up at all; suffice it to say she’s on her own for managing the children.

Here are some out-of-the-box strategies she’s going to try:

1) Long before travel day, mom is going to pick seats.  Instead of putting the parents across the aisle from each other, they are going to sit in front and back of each other.  Why?  Because her kids love to kick the seat in front of them.  This way, the orneriest one will only be kicking her seat, not a stranger’s.

2) First and foremost, mom has to get herself mentally prepared for the task. This is the time to show up reasonably rested and ready for a challenge. She’s a runner so she’s going to think like she’s getting ready for a race: the right gear, the right nutrition, plenty of rest, and the mindset of being ready for a challenge.

3) Part of the mental preparation is getting in the right headspace. We talked about how she loves her kids and doesn’t want to yell at them during the trip because a) she feels bad about it and b) it stresses the kids and makes them more likely to misbehave. She repeated a mantra that she’ll run through her head while trying to survive the trip with some sort of sanity intact. Her mantra was, “I love them and I love me.” This is a reminder to be compassionate with them and kind to herself.

4) Part of the prep is getting the kids ready.  Her husband has been warning them about the “rules” for when they fly: “No loud voices, no getting out of your seats.”  What a great challenge for two strong-willed little peeps who love to show their parents who’s boss by screaming, kicking the seat in front of them, and running down the aisle.  We shifted this mini-lecture to a challenge. Or call it a game.  Or an experiment.  It might sound like this: “I wonder how many minutes in a row you’ll be able to use your indoor voice!” “I wonder how many prizes you’ll be able to earn by sitting still on the plane.” (I’ll come back to this.)

5) The next part of the prep happens on the way to the airport.  With compassion and playfulness, she’s going to say, “I can imagine that it might be hard to sit quietly on the plane for so long so how about if you get all your yells and screams out of your system now?”  Then she’ll encourage them to yell, roar, bark, meow, howl….. whatever they want, as loud as they can.  She’ll do it right along with them, encouraging them to do even more, even louder.  This is one of my favorite parenting tricks: you TRY to get them to make a lot of noise on your terms. This sucks some of the wind out of their sails.  All of a sudden, you think it’s fun and funny to make a lot of noise (at a time and place you have chosen), which instantly stops the battle that they are accustomed to winning.

6) Once they get checked in and through security, she’s going to pull the same trick on them in the concourse by saying, “I can imagine it might be hard to sit still on the plane so let’s get all our wiggles out now.”  They are going to run and chase and jump and wiggle their waggles away. All the while, she’ll be reminding herself, “I did not come here to form long-lasting relationships with the people in this airport.”  And while this strategy of shaking their sillies out might be a “trick,” it’s a kind trick.  It’s one that honors the fact that little toddlers want to move and wiggle and make noise.  It gives them a chance to feel understood and honored.  I can tell you from experience that most strategies of getting toddlers to sit still, like threatening and repeating, are not loving and honoring. Oh, and they don’t usually work.

7) This family is flying near bedtime, so after the kids have wiggled their waggles away, she’s going to get them in the mindset of bedtime by putting on their pj’s and brushing their teeth.  On the plane, she’ll give them their warm milk, read their bedtime stories, whisper their lullabies and snuggle the best she can.

8) Once they board, this mom is going to befriend the people sitting right near her family and offer to buy them drinks. After that, she is not going to look at them or worry about what they are thinking.  She’s going to focus on doing her best to get through the flight with minimal brain damage.  Trying to please everyone around her is not her job. Employing her best parenting skills with her kids… THAT is her job.

9) Now that game/challenge/experiment that she cued up a while back comes into play. She will challenge her two year old to see if she can stay seated and use her indoor voice for three minutes.  During that time, she’ll talk to her, read to her, and be attentive.  When her daughter makes it three minutes, she’s going to trace one of the girl’s fingers on a piece of paper.  Then she’ll do it again and trace the next finger.  Then again.  And again.  When the girl’s entire hand is traced, she’ll get to pick a little wrapped prize that mom has tucked into the carry-on.  At this rate, she’ll have checked the box on fifteen peaceful minutes. If she can do a handful of these cycles, she will have gotten through take off and a good chunk of the flight.  And, more importantly, she will have given her daughter practice at doing what mom wants her to do…. sit quietly and use her indoor voice.  This is so much more effective than focusing on what she doesn’t want her to do: run and scream.

That’s it.  After all that, she’ll focus on bedtime stories and getting her daughter to sleep. The trip probably won’t go perfectly, but then, many challenges with toddlers don’t.  But this mom feels more prepared and hopeful and she has some things to focus on to up the odds that at least a good part of the trip goes better than it might have.

One last thought: even though it can be exhausting and embarrassing flying with toddlers, I hope you don’t wish it away.  What I’ve experienced is that they do eventually grow up and become easy to travel with.  But there’s a catch: when they get to the part where they’re easy to travel with, it’s not long until they start flying away….. away to college, away on semesters abroad, away on trips that don’t involve us.  And that, just like traveling with toddlers, brings its own kind of sweetness and its own kind of bitterness, all wrapped up in one.

Copyright December 2017 by Kerry Stutzman, LMFT, MSW.  Kerry offers parent coaching as well as marriage, family, and individual therapy.  She believes in thinking differently about how we think about things.



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