When I was 8, I flew by myself to visit my grandparents. My mother walked me to the gate, where a uniformed airline employee took me by the hand and led me onto the plane. I sat right up front next to the flight attendant, who watched over me and provided me with ice cold sodas, small packets of peanuts, and "wings" to pin on my dress. Flying solo was an adventure, and it gave me access to an independence I had never known before. I was looking forward to doing it again.
These days, there’s nothing I’d rather do less than fight with dozens of strangers for a filthy plastic trash can to put my shoes in. The thrill of flying to a new city eluded me through baggage fees, security checkpoints, overpriced snacks, and tense hours occupying the dreaded middle seat. I certainly do not wish such discomfort on my children, especially alone.
But a plane is the only way to get my 13-year-old son across the country to visit his grandmother.
As I prepare it – and myself – for the big day, I asked experts for advice on how to make it a smooth ride for everyone. Here is what they said.
Check if your child is ready.
“I would consider their level of maturity quite highly, their ability to make decisions on their own, their ability to follow instructions that may involve multiple steps, their shyness or ease they are able to ask adults for help,” said Dr. Cindy T. Graham, a child psychologist practicing in Maryland.
Graham noted that children are usually allowed to babysit at the age of 13, so it’s probably safe to assume that most – but not all – children are ready to handle a solo trip by this time. the.
Airline policies vary. Delta allows children 5 years and older to fly unaccompanied. Kids 8 and up can even take connecting flights. For a fee of $150, their program will provide your child with a trackable wristband, access to Sky Kids Lounges, and a personal Delta Escort throughout their trip.
Whichever airline you choose, they will issue a pass to the adult who brings the child to their departure flight and to the adult who picks them up upon arrival. Children are not left on their own to get through security.
Do a review.
For some children, preparing too far in advance can increase anxiety, so it’s important to consider your child’s individual needs. When presenting the concept, contact your airline to confirm what the process will entail for check-in, security and gate transfer.
"Guide your child through the exact steps that will occur during drop-off and pickup,” said Natasha Daniels, a licensed child therapist and clinical social worker in Arizona. Hopefully this isn’t your child’s first time on a plane, so they are familiar with the process.
Review basic in-flight protocol, such as not being able to use the lavatory during takeoff and landing, how to use the call button to get the flight attendant’s attention, and what to do in case of emergency.
Ask open-ended questions.
When discussing the upcoming flight, don’t make assumptions about what your child is thinking or feeling.
"You want to give space for the child to talk about their concerns," Graham said.
Daniels recommended asking them, "WWhat’s the scariest thing about flying alone? and use their answer as a guide to prepare them.
You can also ask the children what they think would help them feel less nervous on board. They might have ideas about what to pack in their hand luggage, for example.
If your child is expressing fear, Daniels suggests you validate it by saying something like, “It’s normal to feel anxious when traveling alone. Anyone would feel anxious and that’s fine.
If your child is distressed, validate their feelings, but keep your own emotions in check. "If they see you’re upset, it makes it a lot harder for them," Graham said.
Prepare a bag full of distractions, as well as something soothing.
Twenty thousand feet in the air is probably not the right place to limit screen time. A tablet or phone loaded with photos of family members can provide comfort, and new movies or shows to watch will make the time pass more quickly. If the airline has an app for accessing in-flight entertainment, help your child download it before boarding. Remember to fully charge devices and don’t forget to pack chargers and headphones.
Younger children may want to bring a beloved or favorite stuffed animal. “For teens, even a favorite sweatshirt can provide comfort,” Daniels added.
Snacks are another favorite distraction. Pack plenty of them, including perhaps a usually unauthorized treat that your child may be eager to eat. Sara Nelson, President of Flight Attendants Association – CWAwho represents flight attendants who work for a number of major airlines, said snacks should be peanut-free and children should also have a bottle of water they can refill before boarding (the bottle of water must be empty when you go through security. )
In addition to the identification and documents they may need to meet airline requirements, make sure your child has the phone numbers of the person dropping them off and the person picking them up.
Identify helpful adults.
Introduce your child to the flight crew at the gate. A young child can also present the stuffed animal that will travel with him.
Nelson suggested that parents "reserve children in aisle seats so flight attendants can see them and have access to get up and call for help."
She explained that flight attendants will let your child know before the flight, check on them throughout, and remind them to wait for the designated employee who will see them off the plane.
Daniels suggested calling the person picking them up so they can "hear directly from that person where they’ll be waiting when they get off the plane."
Know when to pull the emergency brakes.
You want your child to know that you believe they can do it, but at the same time, you need to "know how badly your child has to cancel it," Graham said. An impending tantrum could be a signal, as could physical symptoms such as fever, headache, or vomiting.
"Sometimes the child is afraid of disappointing the parent or disappointing the people they are going to see," Graham explained.
Especially when custody issues are at stake, it’s critical to "respect the perspective of the child," Graham said.
Forcing a distressed child on a flight could have "significant implications", Graham said, ranging from her sense of bodily autonomy to trusting her inner compass when she says something is wrong.
"One of our biggest obligations as parents is to teach our children to live without us," Graham said.
We should look for safe opportunities to foster independent skills in our children. Ordering their own food in a restaurant, for example, allows them to practice making decisions and speaking for themselves.
Before takeoff, “praise and reaffirm their ability to do it on their own,” Graham advised.
Managing that first solo flight can give your child a sense of accomplishment and the confidence to take on other challenges. Besides, he will become a pro next time.