This summer, we took my son on his first airplane ride. Well, technically he had been on a few trips as an infant, but now at age 2, he was old enough to sort of understand it. He knew about airplanes – he loves to watch them fly overhead, and he’s seen pictures of them in books – but we didn’t think he had any idea what to actually expect when the time came. Sometimes as adults, we take for granted that we know what’s going on most of the time, when our little people are usually just moved from place to place without any say in it. When adults go on an airplane ride, we totally understand why we’re lining up, or taking our shoes off, or keeping our seatbelts on. But a 2-year-old without any greater context might find the whole thing a little crazy.
So we prepared him for the trip in what can only be considered excruciating detail. It’s a lot like this strategy from The Whole-Brain Child Workbook. We went through the entire order of the day, like this:
First, we’re going to drive over to Grandpa’s house, and he’s going to get in our car and drive us to the airport. Then we’re going to say bye to him, and we’re going to take your car seat and your sister’s car seat and the stroller and all of our suitcases and we’re going to take them into the airport. When we walk in, it will be a big huge room with lots of people. We’ll have to stand in line and someone will help us get our tickets.
We talked about going through security, and taking everything out of our pockets and putting it through a big huge machine. We talked about sitting in some chairs for a really long time, because flying on an airplane means we do a lot of waiting. Then we talked about walking on to the plane, finding our seats, looking out the window, and the experience of taking off. You can imagine the rest. It was a total play-by-play of every minute of the airplane ride.
Talking through it definitely got him excited – every night he would say, “First Grandpa drives us to the airport, right?” But I think it did something else, too. I think it really prepared him for what could have been a totally overwhelming experience. When we were sitting at the gate, I said, “Remember when we talked about all the waiting that we’d have to do? This is the waiting part!” That seemed okay to him, because he knew there would be waiting, and he knew that at the end of the waiting, he’d get to see the inside of the airplane.
This strategy worked great for an exciting moment like an airplane ride, and as he gets older, I definitely plan to use it again for other experiences that might cause him anxiety. And for me, it really helped me to slow down and think about the experience from his perspective. What things might seem strange to him? What might make him anxious or excited or scared? I hope I can keep that perspective as he moves into other areas of his life as well.