We are taking a LONG flight this summer with our 3-year-old who is prone to tantrums at the moment. Any tips for what to do/how to handle a prolonged tantrum in a tight space where we can’t go outside as a distraction?

This is an excellent question and one that many parents face. There are a few things you can do, taking two approaches. One is to try to prevent as much as possible, and the other is handling your own response in the moment should a tantrum occur.

Tantrum prevention

For prevention, see if you can come up with a list of things that tend to set him off and start a tantrum. Is there anything you can do to plan ahead? For instance, if getting hungry or bored is a problem, have snacks at the ready (this is a time when even things that aren’t typically allowed can be used!) or some new or interesting activities.

In planning ahead, you can also talk to him about how you expect him to behave (sit calmly, talk in an inside voice, follow directions). For that age, it can be helpful to make a little reward chart, breaking it down by hour of the trip, and working towards a reward (a small toy or treat). For example, have your top two or three behaviors that you expect him to do (e.g., sit calmly, use inside voice) and let him put a sticker on the chart each hour if he does those behaviors. He would then have to earn a certain number of stickers to get his prize. You may choose to take one away should he have a tantrum or give an extra if he is able to calm down quickly if a tantrum starts. Keep the chart and expectations simple and frame them as action behaviors, not “don’t” behaviors (like “use an inside voice” rather than “no yelling”). 

Managing your response

Your own response in the moment is just as important. As a parent, often our first reaction is as many strong emotions as the child is having – embarrassment, anxiety, anger, frustration. We are also tired, stressed, and off our routine when we travel! But, as an adult, you may be better able to control your response. If you bring calm to your child’s chaos, this will go a lot farther than responding with negative emotion.

I realize, having been there, this is much easier said than done, but it is helpful to prepare in advance how you will respond so that you have a plan at the ready. For example, if you see the child start escalating, try the STOP method. First, Stop your automatic response in order to Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed. So, pause for a second, actually take a breath and count to ten slowly in order to observe what is going on and what your child may be reacting to. This gives you a moment to figure out how to proceed without just being reactive.

You can also plan ahead what you will say to yourself in your head to stay calm. For instance, “even if he makes a giant fuss, this won’t last forever; the other passengers have heard it before (and likely been there before themselves!); I can handle this.”

The calmer you stay, the better you will be able to understand what’s going on, try to fix the problem with a distraction, a snack or a reminder of the reward. For example, saying “I can tell you are getting upset. I know it is hard to be on a plane for a long time, but you are doing great! Maybe you are hungry. Let’s try taking a deep breath and pretend we are blowing bubbles, then we will have a snack and a game. Remember if you can calm down and sit quietly, you can get another sticker. Look how close you are!” 

If you feel prepared going in, you will be better able to handle the problems as they arise. It is possible you won’t be able to prevent all problems, but you can manage them, and the plane ride won’t last forever! 


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.
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