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How to Survive Meltdowns & Meanies When Flying with Children

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You’re packed and ready to board the airplane with your child. Snacks? Check. Beloved cuddle toy? Check. A carry-on full of games, coloring books, and maybe a movie or two? Check. Check. Check. There’s no one more prepared than you. But even the best preparation won’t guarantee a stress-free flight.

Airplane Tantrum

Occasionally, a worn-out child will throw a tantrum no matter how how many inflight WiFi movies or bags of Cheerios and fish-shaped crackers you’ve brought. Once that happens, the mean passengers seated nearby will sigh audibly and throw why-can’t-people-control-their-children looks your way. Here are three unexpected tips for dealing with these meltdowns and meanies when flying with children.

Break the Rules

My two-year-old daughter loves to dig through my purse. It’s a no-no, and she knows it. But if I leave it anywhere within her reach, she’ll start rooting around in it the second my back is turned. Her favorite items are my tin of lip gloss, my camera, and my wallet. My theory is that she’s fascinated by these things precisely because they’re off-limits.

On one particularly long day of travel and changing planes, my daughter had had enough. She wanted to put the tray table up and down, up and down, annoying the passenger in front of her. After asking her to stop several times and offering every snack and distraction I could think of, I had to be firm and buckle her into her seat belt so that she couldn’t reach the tray table. She lost it. She screamed and kicked and wouldn’t stop.

Until I pulled out my purse.

I told her that if she stopped with all the racket, I’d let her take out one item. She chose the camera. Luckily, I had already uploaded the pictures. She pressed the buttons and took blurry pictures of me and the seat cushions for the rest of the flight.

The camera is still a no-no, but it was my saving grace that day. If I have to, I’ll use it again. Or the lip gloss tin or my wallet. Honestly, I’d rather clean up lip gloss from daughter’s hands and cheeks or greasy fingerprints from my camera than sit through an in-flight meltdown.

Whatever safe no-nos you have, I say bring ‘em out. But only when absolutely necessary. Use no-no items only to cease a melt-down that has already begun, not to prevent one. You certainly don’t want the access to these items to become an expectation!

Let. It. Be.

Once you’ve done everything you can, you have to give in to both the meltdown and the meanies. I don’t mean give in and let your daughter kick the back of the chair in front of her or run up and down the aisle. I mean, let go of the idea that you can control everything.

You’ve tried everything, right? You’ve used up all your tricks. You’ve apologized profusely, and you may have even offered to buy your row-mates a drink (when absolutely necessary, this can come in handy). It’s time to realize you may not be the one in control. I know it’s easier said than done, but you might be better off letting the tantrum happen and ingnoring the glares from unsympathetic passengers. Chances are, a cranky, crying child will wear herself out eventually.

As for the meanies, you just have to remind yourself that they’re out there, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The more you try to control something you have no control over, the more frustrated you become. And you’ll probably never see those mean people ever again.

Think Into The Future

You know how we say, one day we’ll all laugh about this? Well, next time you’re on an airplane (or in the grocery store or wherever) and you’ve done everything you can, but the meanies and the meltdowns take over anyway, imagine yourself sitting at coffee with friends and telling them the story of that horrible flight.

So Junior is throwing a fit because he wants strawberry yogurt instead of blueberry, and I overhear the lady in the seat behind me say, “Why won’t she control her kids?” Never mind that we still have two hours to go. I swear if someone doesn’t give me a glass of wine and a shoulder massage right now, I’m going to tear my hair out.

I promise you, it will help. If even just enough to keep your hair in your head.

What tips do you have for surviving meanies and meltdowns when flying with children? Let us know in the comments!

Elizabeth Salaam is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the San Diego Reader. She and her husband have two children, ages 2 and 13.  As an objective journalist, Elizabeth doesn’t often get a chance to gush about the wonderful people she meets every day, so she created, a blog where she gushes about her favorite San Diegans and they, in turn, share their favorite San Diego restaurants, hotels, coffee shops, and hikes with her.

Photo by Lisa Svara, purchased from

  1. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

    Elizabeth – I can’t believe I never wrote a thank you on here…Thank you so much for writing a guest post for Travel Mamas! You are so right, sometimes you can prepare, prepare, prepare and STILL your child has a tantrum and/or you get seated next to a meanie (like the man who stuck his fingers in his ears and scowled at my wailing son). I love your tips on making it through those very trying times!

  2. Elizabeth says

    Thanks, Colleen! I had to take my own advice (again) just days after you asked me to write. Luckily, the trip was pretty smooth. My wish for your readers is that no one gets to the point where they need to use these tips. 🙂

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