how to deal with your child's complete meltdown during a flight
Share the story

An airplane ride is no walk in the park even for adults, with the constant background roar of the engines while confined to a tight space with total strangers—often for a substantial period of time. Just imagine how much harder it must be for young children to withstand the rough journey, especially when it is their first flight. 

No matter how well you prepare for your child’s first air travel, there is no guarantee it will go smoothly according to plan, and that can be scary when you fly with a child. You might see a whole different side of your child’s personality, such as acting out loudly in reaction to the overwhelming discomforts. 

To make matters worse, while you struggle to end your child’s meltdown as quickly as possible, a plane full of strangers’ eyes are on you and your child, their sighs and huffs of frustration reaching your ears while no words of your own seem to get through to your child. It can feel like nothing short of a total nightmare.  

So, how do you minimize the risk of a meltdown during the flight, and in the event that things do not go smoothly, how can you shorten your child’s tantrum and calm him or her effectively? 

Here are some things that you can prepare for before and during your flight to lower the risk of your child throwing a tantrum on the plane. 

Things to prepare and do to lower the chances of your child having a meltdown

1. Check with a doctor about using over-the-counter medication for motion sickness

Some children can get motion sickness during a flight, which can leave your child with nausea, low energy, headache, and irritability. Relieving your child’s discomfort with medication can help him or her feel more at ease and prevent a potential meltdown.

Be sure to discuss with your child’s pediatrician to ensure whether this option is appropriate for your child, and if so, keep medication handy during the flight. If you already know your child is prone to motion sickness, you can even administer some before your departure. 

2. Prepare new games, toys and activities for distraction—and save the best for emergencies

Since your child will have limited space and resources to pass the time and relieve their boredom, over-preparation is better when it comes to packing entertainment like games and toys for the flight. 

The safest bets will be things your child had shown interest in recently, since he or she will be more likely to enjoy playing with them. While inexpensive items are usually sufficient, it is important to choose carefully with child’s interests in mind; if you pack toys that don’t grab your kids’ attention, it will be a waste of money and effort. 

Keep the toys out of sight and disperse them throughout the flight, without using them all up in the beginning. 

3. Dress your child in a comfy outfit

Be sure to dress your child in the most comfortable clothes you can find—preferably ones that stretch easily and feel soft on their skin. You will also want to layer the outfit so it can be easily adjusted according to fluctuations in temperature during the flight.

4. Check your child’s condition before boarding 

Assess your child’s condition before boarding as to whether they have had enough sleep, a decent meal, and a chance to run around.

All of these factors should be accounted for before the flight, but sometimes due to the timing or changes in the flight schedule, it can be hard to satisfy all of your child’s needs. 

To mitigate unavoidable difficulties, pack some of your child’s preferred foods, snacks, and comfort items such as a teddy bear or security blanket to accommodate his or her needs on the plane.

5. Interact with your child

Focus your attention on your child during the flight and be on the lookout for signs of boredom or physical discomfort. It can be easy to rely on screen time and surprise toys, but with younger children, it is very important to interact with them and monitor their state. 

Explain about the flight ahead of time and discuss what your child can expect while answering their questions. Your child might feel anxious about being in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable space with loud noises. Be alert for signs of anxiety and try to help calm your child before it escalates out of proportion. 

Play with your child while asking about their condition and needs, so you can take preventative measures before discomfort sets in.

6. Do not rush to board

Even though most airlines offer priority boarding for families with young children, hold back your temptation to accept that offer. If your child is not happy flying, even that extra 20 minutes outside of the plane can be crucial. The less time your child spends in the confined space of the aircraft, the less adverse they will be when discomfort sets in later. 

7. Be friendly toward other passengers and flight attendants

It is always a good idea to be extra friendly with other passengers and flight attendants when travelling with children. You never know what situations you might face during the flight, and extending kindness and friendliness towards your fellow travellers can make them more inclined to lend helping hands when you find yourself in need. 

What to do during a complete meltdown

1. If the seatbelt sign is off, cuddle and gently rock your child on your lap 

If your child shows visible signs of distress with loud screaming and crying, put him or her on your lap with gentle cuddles and a soothing back rub. It is important for your child to feel your closeness and familiar scent when stress and anxiety are spiking.

2. Be calm and whisper comforting words

It doesn’t matter how wrong your child’s action might look from a standard point of view; flailing arms and kicking feet on a crowded aircraft require a delicate intervention. Calmly whisper near your child’s ear how much you love him or her and that you understand how uncomfortable and difficult it is to be on a plane.

Tell your child how brave they are to ride a plane so well and be seated for such long hours. Reassure them that you will help them feel better and have more fun for the remainder of the flight. Or, if your child looks exhausted, tell him or her that you will help them rest and be there for them. 

3. Reassess your child’s condition

Keep checking to find out whether your child might be having motion sickness or feeling scared, sleepy or hungry.

If your child’s usual sleep schedule has been disturbed to catch an early flight, help him or her cuddle with familiar bedtime objects and provide the best possible space and position you can manage to facilitate sleep. 

4. Focus on relieving your child’s discomfort and distress

When a child is melting down and out of control, most times communication will be impossible. You will need to do some guesswork to decipher your child’s discomfort and help to solve the issue.

5. If your child’s distress is coming from boredom and frustration, use the ace up your sleeve

Your child needs all the help he or she can get to pass the time pleasantly while struggling with the unfamiliar noises and the tight space, without the freedom to move. 

Now is the time to pull out a special toy from the stash you prepared before the flight, and use it to entertain your child. 

6. If the seatbelt sign is off suggest a mini tour to explore around the plane

If your young child is active and having difficulty sitting in one spot for long without getting whiny about it, take advantage of the seatbelts off time to give your child a tour around the plane. Show them what the bathroom looks like and how they will use it when the time comes and move from front to back, showing them the other seats and the overall layout of the plane as far as you can access. 

Summary

The spectacle of a child wailing and screaming and thrashing around is hard to watch, even as a stranger. But if it is your child who explodes and goes into a complete meltdown, it can overwhelm you and leave you feeling helpless. 

Prepare before the tantrum to minimize chances of a meltdown by packing food, toys, and nighttime comfort items. Pack some over-the-counter motion sickness medication, delay the boarding, be extra friendly to other passengers and flight attendants, and constantly interact with your child to monitor their emotional and physical state. 

What if, after doing all you can, your child still throws a tantrum during the flight? If the seatbelt sign is off, cuddle your child on your lap and whisper loving and soothing comments, check his or her condition and accommodate any needs, and try providing special toys to distract from their frustration and boredom, or offer a mini tour to freshen up their mood. 

It is always better to over-prepare for a fight with your child, so you have many tools at your disposal to deal with any heart-wrenching situations during the flight. Most importantly, no matter how frustrating your child’s behaviour gets, it is crucial for you to remain calm, in order to guide your child through the emotional and physical duress of the flight.

You might also be interested in reading the articles below:

Scroll to Top