Girl On A Plane: How to Handle a Meltdown

Recently, I was on a flight home sitting quietly in my seat as a mother of a toddler, probably around 2, came down the aisle to sit in the row behind me. The mom struggled to navigate the narrow aisle, diaper bag, and carry-on draped over her shoulders, pulling her toddler behind her in a car-seat stroller down the aisle. The toddler seemed content, with a bottle on her lap, just waking up from a nap.

The Meltdown

Then her mom told her she had to get out of her car seat and up into her window seat. That’s when the drama began. The little girl started, not to cry, but to scream! She did not want to get out of that comfy car seat. Her mom, already struggling, unbuckled the child, who immediately slid out of her car-seat and on to the floor, screaming. The mom, quickly, put the car seat by the window and went back to try to scoop up her daughter, who screamed and resisted with all her voice and strength.

The mom, clearly trying to be very patient, spoke calmly as she put her child into her car seat by the window…but the screaming continued. “I don’t want to! I don’t want to!” As a flight attendant approached, I imagine the mom felt the eyes of all the other passengers on her as her daughter’s voice bounced off the walls and throughout the small airplane cabin.

Child Out of Control

She probably felt trapped, stuck and embarrassed, and most parents have been in that place. How can she get her daughter to stop screaming? And that’s what she tried and tried and tried, but no amount of offering snacks, a bottle, a book, activities, nothing could, ‘get her daughter to stop screaming.’

It can feel frustrating, embarrassing and, quickly, overwhelming as we feel out of control when our child is out of control. So the mom ‘gave in’ for the moment, and let the daughter out of her car seat and put her on her lap. The child stopped for a moment, until the flight attendant told the mom that the child needed to be buckled up, either in the car seat or in the empty middle seat. As the mom tried to comply, the daughter started up her protests: “I don’t want to buckle! I don’t want to buckle!”

At that point, I wished I could intervene, but thought better of it as I was concerned that some strange guy trying to intervene with an upset toddler and embarrassed mom might as easily escalate the situation as help resolve it. But what to do?

Four Steps to Handle Meltdowns

Here are four things you can do to help your child during a meltdown:

  1. Name your child’s struggle, name the feelings.
  2. Give the child choices.
  3. Move the child.
  4. Name your child’s struggle – repeat as needed.

Step 1: Name Your Child’s Struggle.

Name your child’s struggle:

“You don’t want to get out of your car seat?” “It’s hard to have to move?” “I wish you could stay in your car seat. It’s hard to have to wake up and move to the window seat.” Repeat as often as needed and with as much compassion as you can muster.

Our goal is not to ‘get the child to stop screaming.” Or rather, yeah, that’s our goal, because it’s difficult and embarrassing and we can’t have a screaming child on a plane…but really, if we’re focusing on getting them to stop screaming, we will feel trapped and we will react, because there is not much we can do that can get them to stop screaming.

Our focus has to be to come along side our child as she struggles and help her do what she has to do, which, in this case, is to get into the window seat. Our goal is to draw near, to connect with our child, as she does this.

Consider this situation from a child’s perspective. They were comfortable, relaxed, and nicely taken care of, and it is really annoying to have to be woken up and move. Any parent who’s had to wake up a child to move them knows how upsetting this is to a child. If we can understand, from a child’s perspective, that this is hard, and communicate to our child that we understand how hard it is for them, they are more likely to feel our love and calm down.

When we struggle as adults, what really helps us is not someone who tries to get us to stop being upset, but someone who understands, empathizes, listens, and seems to really get it. When we have someone like that by our side, we calm down.

Plus, our role as parents is not to make our kids’ lives easy. Life forces us, sometimes, to have to wake up when we don’t want to and move when we’d rather sit comfortably. We want to help our kids develop the skills, the ability, to do the hard thing–to learn to be strong, learn how to do what is right even when we don’t feel like it. Kids learn these skills through the daily struggles of life–and through travel. And they learn these skills best with parents right by their side who ‘get it.’

Step 2: Give the Child Choices.

Give her a choice: “You can buckle up in your car seat, or buckle up in the middle seat.”

That girl was not capable of making a good decision and putting herself in her proper seat. She was overwhelmed by her own toddler drama. She needed help to ‘do what she had to do.’ And our role as parents is to help a child do the right thing when they are not able to do it themselves.

We could just move the child to the window seat, and continue naming her struggle, but offering her a choice will give her some sense of autonomy and control. I suspect that this child is used to being taken care of and does not do well when she has to do something she does not want to do. Providing a choice gives the toddler a little wiggle room to exercise some of her free will.

Step 3: Move the Child.

Move her.

This is just like it sounds. That child does not have a choice. The mom did not have a choice. In life, often times we don’t have a choice. The more a mom gives in to a child’s demands, the more enslaved the child becomes to her desires and the less able a child is to do what needs to be done. We can’t always do what a child wants, and that’s not good for a child. The sooner a child learns how to do what needs to be done no matter what they are feeling, the more they thrive in life. Moving the child is essential if we want to help a child learn how to navigate these situations.

We need to do what needs to be done, and if we love our children, we will equip them with the skills to do what we have to do, even when we don’t want to. We can’t control that toddler’s emotions or stop her screaming, but we can control her behavior. If we love our children, we help them do the right thing by, at times, forcing them to do the right thing. If we don’t force the child, we are left with trying to explain airline regulations and safety to a toddler who really just wants to stay in her car seat. Our child does not need to understand airline regulations, but a child does need to learn that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.

After the mom gives the screaming child a choice, she can simply put her in the car seat, just like she did. Notice, this does not stop the screaming, but that is not our goal. The only way that kids learn to do the hard thing is when they are forced to do the hard thing. The only way they know that their parents love them is when they have a mom who ‘get’s it,’ who understands how hard it is to do the right thing by naming the toddler’s feelings, as she’s putting the child in the seat.

Our role is to keep the limits firm and take the side of the child as the child struggles to sit where she needs to sit. What the mom could do, then, was ignore the screaming and the nervous passengers, pick up her child and put her in the window or middle seat, and sit quietly next to the child and name her feelings.

Step 4: Name the feelings. Repeat.

Name the feelings. Repeat.

“You wanted to say in your car seat?” “It’s hard to move seats when we’re tired.” “I wish you could have stayed in that car seat.” “I wish I could have stayed in my comfortable seat.” “You’re mad at me for forcing you to sit by the window?” “You’re mad at me for taking you out of the car seat?” Repeat.

Now, our child may or may not stop screaming, but the more a child knows that she does not have a choice and the more a child feels like ‘my mom understands my struggle,’ the sooner a child learns to calm herself down and do what needs to be done.

And, if we know that our focus is on empathizing with a child, rather than ‘getting them to stop screaming,’ we’ll be less likely to feel trapped or stuck as we navigate the drama and can actually have a sense of peace in the process.

If this is the way the mom always interacts with her daughter, it will be easier for her daughter to learn how to calm herself down when she’s upset and do what she has to do. That is a valuable life skill. If this is not happening in the home, or throughout the day, it’s tough to deal with on an airplane. And when these daily struggles are connected to Christ and His Church, our kids come to understand that following Christ is the path of success as they develop the skills to follow God’s commandments even when they don’t feel like it.

How the Parent Feels

Now, finally, about the embarrassment…well, consider it an invitation to humility. People might criticize and judge us (or write a parenting article about us), but the more our focus is on staying close to our child as she learns, the less we will care what others think about us.

And our own struggles can help us have patience and empathy for other parents when we see them struggling with the same issues.

So, I did say something. I said a prayer for her, and I told the mom, “Good job. It’s tough when our kids are forced to wake up.”

Dr. Philip Mamalakis

About Dr. Philip Mamalakis

Dr. Philip Mamalakis is the author of Parenting Toward the Kingdom: Orthodox Christian Principles of Child-Rearing. With his wife Georgia and seven children, Dr. Mamalakis lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Dr. Mamalakis directs the field education program and teaches classes on pastoral care,marriage and family, grief, death and dying, and topics related to pastoral counseling. He has a private practice in Newton, Massachusetts, where he works with individuals, couples, and families. Dr. Mamalakis has an M.Div. from Holy Cross and a Ph.D. from Purdue University in child development and family studies, specializing in marriage and family therapy. He has been offering parenting courses and writing on parenting for 21 years. He enjoys leading seminars and retreats on intimacy, relationships, marriage, parenting, and family life as well as Orthodoxy and psychology.

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