Yesterday, we were on a flight and my husband and I were seated in front of a mom and her kindergarten-age child. As we were waiting to take off, this mom reviewed the seat back safety card with her son. She had him practice how to brace should the plane make an emergency landing. She talked about water landings. She discussed why it is unsafe to smoke on planes and reminded her little boy how nanny had died from lung cancer from smoking. We were relieved when the sounds of the engine began and drowned out the painful conversation behind us!
Even in the context of my work with anxious kids, this was an extreme example of how parenting can prime anxiety. This child did not ask a SINGLE question about air safety. In fact, he sounded like he was having a fun time on the plane. But, I have no doubt that as he gets older, he will become anxious about air safety. This experience made me think.....
How do we balance educating our children with preventing unneeded anxiety?
-Talk about what is likely to happen, instead of what is extremely unlikely to happen. Do planes crash? Yes, they do. But, with extremely low likelihood. Air travel is extremely safe. What should we talk about on an airplane? How about all the fun things we will be doing at our destination? The shape of the clouds? The beautiful sunrise or sunset? Rather than instilling a sense of fear in our kids, we can instill a sense of wonder.
-Let kids ask the questions, and answer as briefly as possible. I noticed yesterday that the little boy behind us did not ask a single question about air safety. My advice would therefore be - don't talk about air safety! If kids ask questions, answer them but as briefly as possible. Do planes crash? Yes, but barely ever. Why can't people smoke on planes? Because it stinks and pollutes all the passengers' lungs. Why do we go through the Xray machines before boarding the plane? Because those are the rules. Yesterday, my son asked why we can't take liquids through security. Before I could even answer, he said, "I know mommy! They want us to buy our drinks at the airport so they make money." I am totally fine with him thinking that rather than knowing about people using liquids to try to blow up planes. After all, he is nine!
-Make your answers age appropriate. Related to the previous comment, answers to our kids' questions are obviously going to vary depending on age. If a three year old asks if a plane can fall out of the sky, it is totally fine to say a simple NO WAY! If a thirteen year old, with access to the internet, asks the same question, it is appropriate to have a more detailed discussion about airplane safety.
-If you are a nervous flyer, try to not transmit that anxiety to your children. Children learn by example. If you are a nervous flyer, try not to share your fears with your kids. Wouldn't it be nice if they can grow up enjoying something that you fear? Read a self-help book on fear of flying. Attend one of the wonderful classes offered at your local airport. Seek treatment from an expert. Have your kids sit with the adult in your family who is not afraid of flying so that they can learn to associate flying with calmness and enjoyment. And, remember, the nice thing about kids is that they are distracting! You might find that flying becomes easier ones you have children and your attention is diverted from your fears to tending to their needs on the flight!
I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.