How not to be grounded by the fear of flying Anxiety: Some children are normally afraid of air travel. Some have become more nervous in the wake of recent crashes. If you, or they, are going by plane, teach them techniques for calming down.

Taking the Kids

August 04, 1996|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Twelve-year-old Michael Duane suddenly is reluctant to fly to California to visit his grandparents. My 10-year-old daughter was unusually jittery before she boarded her flight to Minnesota to camp. "This plane won't crash," Reggie kept repeating.

Some kids are frantic when parents leave on business trips for fear they'll never come home. Others are begging to change vacation plans so they don't have to fly. "It's everywhere," said Nancy Schretter, who directs America Online's Family Travel Network.

Face it. In the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800, everyone's nervous about flying, and kids can't help but be affected, especially with so much coverage devoted to the children and teen-agers who died on that flight. "The fact that there were so many kids makes it seem more real to them," explained Sheila Ribordy, a DePaul University child psychologist whose specialty is childhood fears. Those most vulnerable: the grade-school crowd who worry about their safety anyway.

Of course, this all comes on the heels of May's ValuJet crash in Florida and smack in the middle of the heaviest family travel season of the year. Not only are thousands of families flying on long-planned trips to Disney World and Yellowstone -- more than last year, the Travel Industry Association reports -- but every day hundreds of children are flying unaccompanied to camp, to visit divorced parents or, as was the case on TWA 800, to a summer adventure.

"The fact that it crashed out of the blue makes me worry that it could happen to me," explained Duane, who lives in New Jersey. "I'm not sure there's anything I can do to make me less nervous," he said glumly. Younger kids might not be so articulate, of course. They might react by having nightmares before a scheduled trip or simply being difficult.

But parents can do a lot to help. Once you've decided to fly, deal with your own fears and anxieties. "Kids pick up fears from their parents," explained Stephen Garber, an Atlanta child psychologist and co-author of "Monsters Under the Bed and Other Childhood Fears" (Random House, $20). "If you're a fearful flier, you'll transfer that to the kids." Conversely, if you're optimistic and confident, the kids will be calmer, too.

It helps to explain to kids that airline accidents, though horrific, are rare. In a typical three-month period, the Air Transport Association notes, more people die on the highway than in all the accidents in the history of U.S. commercial aviation. Over the past 10 years, there was only one fatality for every 3 million people who flew a scheduled U.S. airline flight.

Take the kids to the airport ahead of the flight and let them see planes take off and land safely. Board early and visit the cockpit, suggests Tom Bunn, a longtime United Airlines pilot and social worker who has developed a program called SOAR that has helped ease the fears of 3,000 people afraid to fly. (Call [800] 332-7359 for SOAR information.) If the kids are lucky, Bunn says, the captain may let them sit in his chair while he demonstrates the lights and sounds that help keep the plane flying smoothly.

Such efforts are more important than you might think. "Kids like to know someone is in charge and will take care of them," explained DePaul's Ribordy. If the kids are flying alone, make sure they've met the flight attendants, too. "But don't depend on those on board to occupy them and calm them down," warned Bunn. The kids need toys and games to keep them focused on something other than their anxiety.

Ribordy went a step farther. For those youngsters anxious about flying, she suggested some simple relaxation techniques: On a note card, have them make a list of things they like to think about, that are really fun, such as a joke recently played on a big brother or a trip to the local water park. Teach them to look at the card and conjure up those images when they get frightened. (It works for adults, too.)

Deep breathing is helpful. "The children need to feel empowered, that they can do something to help themselves," Ribordy explained. They also need their parents to acknowledge their fears. "Don't put them down for being afraid," advised Garber. "They need to know you take them seriously."

Encourage the kids to talk about why they're afraid, Garber said, and how, with your help, they can overcome their fear. Don't make the mistake of thinking they'll just outgrow it. Added Garber: "The adults we see [with problems] are the ones who hid their fears as kids."

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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