Fear of taking your child on holiday in case they have a ‘travel tantrum’ is actually really common amongst parents. One study conducted last year suggested that as many as 1 in 4 parents were too scared to take their children on a plane, for fears of being criticised by other passengers (read more here).
However you shouldn’t let the fear of your child throwing a wobbly ruin your family holiday dreams- check out our top tips for preventing and controlling a travel tantrum.
1. You know your child best…
Does your child rely on a regular schedule of eating and sleeping? If yes then don’t decide to go through security during what would normally be nap time. Do strict schedules stress your child out and upset them further? If yes then don’t try and force them to sleep or eat on a schedule during your trip. You know your child best, so stick with what best suits them, even when travelling.
2. Prepare your arsenal
The four biggest causes of travel tantrums are tiredness, hunger, boredom and hyperactivity. Arm yourself with a bag full of healthy snacks and cheap surprise toys and games that you can bring out at different points during the flight (do NOT bring any toy that makes a loud noise, trust me). Make sure you keep some milk/water handy for take-off and landing, to help stop your child’s ears popping, which might cause an upset.
Take advantage of airport play areas and space by letting your little one burn off as much energy as possible before you board the plane, and avoid sugary snacks or naps before the flight, so that your child isn’t wound up or full of too much energy!
3. Your number one fan
We all fancy ourselves to be a bit of a comedian at times, and now you’ve got the most receptive and enthused audience you’ll ever have- your child! Laughter keeps travel tantrums at bay and releases all those feel-good endorphins that keep kids all cute and chuckle-y, so keep your little ones laughing for as long as possible.
The good news is, it’s super easy to get a toddler to laugh. If your child won’t part with his favourite stuffed animal going through security then put it on your head till he laughs! If your child won’t walk any more, exclaim ‘Okay shall we just live here in the airport then?’ as you sit on the floor next to them. Talk into a banana, pull a silly face… it’s worth looking stupid for a few minutes to get those all important laughs that keep the screams at bay.
4. Don’t awaken the beast
A sure fire way of causing a toddler meltdown? Using the word ‘no’. Instead of saying no to your child, come up with ways to distract and engage your little one before the travel tantrum starts to brew. Where possible, offer options to your child so that they feel like they are in control- for example if your child tries to climb on a baggage trolley, instead of shouting ‘no’ ask them if they’d like to read a new story or to go and spot the giant planes out of the window etc., aim to make the alternative option sound more appealing!
5. Keep it quiet
If your child is yelling, resist the urge to shout back. Instead, look them straight in the face and start talking very quietly and calmly. This will confuse your youngster who will realise that they need to quieten down to figure out what you’re saying. It’s a really effective technique, but be warned, it has an expiry date. There are only so many times you can use it before your little troublemaker cottons on to what you’re doing! An old favourite is also to just try and carry on about your business in the airport or on the plane without giving your screaming child the attention they’re trying to get, so they eventually realise that causing a scene isn’t working.
6. Distract, distract, distract!
The best way of avoiding a travel tantrum is to keep your child busy. In addition to your arsenal of toys and snacks, come prepared with plenty of games and activities to keep your toddler distracted. Tell your child stories (about the plane or the place you’re visiting can work well) or play games like ‘How fast can we get to the gate?’. Load up your gadgets with plenty of shows and games as well; although spending 4 hours in an enclosed space listening to Peppa Pig episodes you already know the words to, or another screechy rendition of ‘Let It Go’ might be your worst nightmare, it’ll keep your child quiet, happy and make the trip a much more pleasant experience for all.
7. The sneaky seeky
A personal favourite of mine, I came across this one many years ago. If you see your child starting to freak out, suddenly point and exclaim something absurd such as ‘Is that an elephant?!’ Your child will be completely thrown off and distracted, and you can spend the next few minutes looking around together before confirming that no, you probably hadn’t seen an elephant- meanwhile, the travel tantrum is long gone and forgotten about…
8. Don’t reward bad behaviour
If your child starts screaming because she wants a Smarties tube from the airport gift shop, don’t reward the tantrum by giving her what she wants as a quick fix. Instead, muster your inner mum steel (the kind that repels the judging looks of nearby child-less travel regulars) and stand your ground. Use distraction methods and quiet words to calm her down, so she begins to understand that screaming won’t get her what she wants.
On the flip side, you could use a star chart to reward good behaviour- for example, your child gets a star every time they behave well, and once they get to five stars they get a treat! If your child is old enough to understand, then loudly praise how well they are doing to your partner or travel companion- studies suggest that kids, just like grown-ups, like to hear someone praising them to somebody else.
9. Past the point of no return? Hug with same intensity as you’d secretly like to throttle
When your child reaches that total meltdown point where he can’t see or hear anything because he’s so upset, it can make you want to scream, cry and shout yourself! Instead, pick up your child and just hold them in a comforting hug. Sometimes just a soothing, loving hug can melt away both you and your toddler’s frustration. It’s the simple things that count.
If you’re on a plane, it might be less easy to get the space your travel tantrum toddler is requiring. Try taking them for an ‘adventure’ walk down the aisle or show them all the cool (?) differences of an airport bathroom such as the automatic lights, which can give you the space/privacy/distraction you need to help calm the storm.
10. Keep your cool
‘Ain’t nobody got time for haters’, least of all when you’re doing your best in an enclosed space with a distraught child. If your child does get upset on a plane, just keep cool and ignore those tutting around you- most people on the flight have probably had kids of their own anyway, and understand what it’s like! Don’t feel like you’re being inadequate or being an unfit parent in some way- you’re a badass mum who’s venturing to a whole new country with your child, nothing can scare you off. Just breathe and carry on with what you need to do- and if you do receive a dirty look from a tutting child-less passenger, it’s a reflection on them, not you.
If a stranger or a flight attendant (the cabin crew will have had plenty of past experience with toddler travel tantrums!) offers help, accept it- there are lots of kind people who will do what they can to lend a hand. It doesn’t mean anyone is judging you or thinking that you don’t have a handle on the situation, they’re just trying to help.
11. Be realistic
It’s also important to keep your expectations realistic. Yes, toddlers can and probably will get over-tired or over-excited during a flight, causing a travel tantrum, but it’s just what they do! And no, the flight is not going to be the best part of your holiday (changing a nappy in a tiny airline cubicle is nobody’s idea of a picnic), but once you’ve got through it, you have the perfect family holiday ahead of you!