Travelling with an anxious child

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How to negotiate an airport with a very anxious child

Travelling with kids is wonderful, there is no doubt about that. But the physical effort of getting to that far-off destination can often be too much for us parents to cope with. Getting through the airport as an adult is gruelling, but add a challenging or anxious child in to the mix, and it starts to seem like hell on earth.

Travelling with a child with autism can be even harder as it may be tricky to explain what’s going to happen. You may find it useful to read this booklet produced by Manchester airport called ‘Airport Awareness. Travel advice for parents and carers of children on the Autistic Spectrum‘.

Whether your child is anxious about flying, not good with crowds or has some special needs, there are some things you can do to make the journey easier on your child, and yourself. Here are some top tips for surviving the airport with an anxious child to help you get on your way better.

Plan for an easy ride

Start off by making it easy on yourself. Avoid travelling on Mondays or Fridays to reduce the commuter crowd at the airport, and try to pick a flight without big stopovers or multiple changes if you can.

Research the airlines

Usually several airlines make the trip from your origin to your destination, at variable prices. Instead of just plumping for the cheapest, do your research to see if an extra outlay will make all the difference. Do they have a lounge at the airport? Special services for families? Strollers to the gate policies?

Discuss everything early on

Talk to your child as soon as you can about the trip you’re going to be making. Show them the route, read stories about airports and watch videos about what happens when you fly. If you are close enough, you could even visit an airport so they can put everything into context before the big day.

After republishing my ‘Don’t forget Teddy‘ article in a business magazine, a reader got in touch with me to explain how she dealt with this anxiety for her little one. She created an entire airport security replica at home with cardboard boxes to simulate the conveyor belt and x-ray machine and made a doorway to represent the metal detectors. How inspiring! And it worked for her anxious child who then was able to make the flight without incident.

Check out the airport facilities beforehand

Many airports now have play areas or family lounges where parents with young kids can take a break from the noise and bustle of the airport while they wait for their flight to be called. Make sure you know where these are, and what facilities they will have.

Check in before you get there

If at all possible, do your check-in before you get to the airport. Arrive early so you don’t have to queue for ages to check in your bag, and make sure you understand how long you can hang on to your stroller, if you have one, before it has to go into the checked baggage too. Bring your carry on in a backpack to leave both hands free.

Invest in a taxi

As much as it might cost you a bit more, an investment in a taxi that drops you to the door will be most welcomed when you’re struggling under the weight of a suitcase, carry on and resistant child. If you do use airport parking, make sure you know how frequently the buses run and how long the journey to the airport is to avoid a most unwelcome rush.

Understand security

If you’re travelling with a really little one, you need to understand that you can’t bring liquids, for the most part, through security. Some airports allow a bottle of milk, but will probably want to check for explosives before they let you pass. If your baby is in a buggy or you’re wearing them in a sling, you’ll need to take them out and pass everything thorough the scanner before carrying the child through the detector. Talk to your child about this in particular, as they may be terrified to see all their belongings disappearing into a big black mouth!

Bring distractions

There is likely to be a long wait between check in and boarding, so bring age-appropriate distractions to keep them busy. Card games, balls and sticker books are all great ideas for activities, but try to keep them off the screen based (films, tablets, phones) distractions as you’ll need to keep them in reserve for the plane.

Try not to go first

A few airlines still call for young children first (why?!) but unless you are forced to board early, try to wait until the end of the line to actually get on the plane. Waiting for passengers to board is highly frustrating for adult passengers, so just imagine how your kid is going to feel if they’re left waiting in their seat while everyone gets on the plane.

Bring comforts (and bribes)

Pack some stuff you know your kid will love. Think about favourite teddies, soothing music and comfort blankets. As well as this, don’t be ashamed to offer sweet bribes to keep them calm! Small, fiddly sweets or things like raisins are great for keeping little fingers occupied, buying you a little breathing space when it all gets too much.

With a little help and these handy tips, you can get through the airport minefield unscathed. Keep in mind, it’s just a few hours of what will be a most amazing experience, so try to focus on the end goal rather than dwelling on the meltdown you’re dealing with right now.

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