Category: Holidays

Airplane Travel with Toddlers: Nine Out-of-the-Box Strategies

Before I had kids, vacation started the moment I sat down on the airplane. That all changed when I started traveling with toddlers.  And how!

When traveling with toddlers, boarding a flight signals the beginning of the biggest challenge of the trip: trying to confine little people with the need for speed into one small space for hours on end. And keep them quiet.  T’ain’t natural. Talk about a set up for parental frustration.

A mother of two rowdy toddlers who are barely two and almost four just spent an entire session of parent coaching with me, crafting a plan to get through a flight with the kids without losing her cool.  We won’t discuss her husband who gets really tense if the kids act up at all; suffice it to say she’s on her own for managing the children.

Here are some out-of-the-box strategies she’s going to try:

  1. Long before travel day, mom is going to pick seats.  Instead of putting her and her husband across the aisle from each other, they are going to sit in front and back of each other.  Why?  Because her kids love to kick the seat in front of them.  This way, the orneriest one will only be kicking her seat, not a stranger’s.
  2. First and foremost, mom has to get herself mentally prepared for the task. This is the time to show up reasonably rested and ready for a challenge. She’s a runner so she’s going to think like she’s getting ready for a race: the right gear, the right nutrition, plenty of rest, and the mindset of being ready for a challenge.
  3. Part of the mental preparation is getting in the right headspace. We talked about how she loves her kids and doesn’t want to yell at them during the trip because a) she feels bad about it and b) it stresses the kids and makes them more likely to misbehave. She repeated a mantra that she’ll run through her head while trying to survive the trip with some sort of sanity intact. Her mantra was, “I love them and I love me.” This is a reminder to be compassionate with them and kind to herself.
  4. Part of the prep is getting the kids ready.  Her husband has been warning them about the “rules” for when they fly: “No loud voices, no getting out of your seats.”  What a great challenge for two strong-willed little peeps who love to show their parents who’s boss by screaming, kicking the seat in front of them, and running down the aisle.  We shifted this mini-lecture to a challenge. Or call it a game.  Or an experiment.  It might sound like this: “I wonder how many minutes in a row you’ll be able to use your indoor voice!” “I wonder how many prizes you’ll be able to earn by sitting still on the plane.” (I’ll come back to this.)
  5. The next part of the prep happens on the way to the airport.  With compassion and playfulness, she’s going to say, “I can imagine that it might be hard to sit quietly on the plane for so long so how about if you get all your yells and screams out of your system now?”  Then she’ll encourage them to yell, roar, bark, meow, howl….. whatever they want, as loud as they can.  She’ll do it right along with them, encouraging them to do even more, even louder.  This is one of my favorite parenting tricks: you TRY to get them to make a lot of noise on your terms. This sucks some of the wind out of their sails.  All of a sudden, you think it’s fun and funny to make a lot of noise (at a time and place you have chosen), which instantly stops the battle that they are accustomed to winning.
  6. Once they get checked in and through security, she’s going to pull the same trick on them in the concourse by saying, “I can imagine it might be hard to still still on the plane so let’s get all our wiggles out now.”  They are going to run and chase and jump and wiggle their waggles away. All the while, she’ll be reminding herself, “I did not come here to form long-lasting relationships with the people in this airport.”  And while this strategy of shaking their sillies out might be a “trick,” it’s a kind trick.  It’s one that honors the fact that little toddlers want to move and wiggle and make noise.  It gives them a chance to feel understood and honored.  I can tell you from experience that most strategies of getting toddlers to sit still, like threatening and repeating, are not loving and honoring. Oh, and they don’t usually work.
  7. This family is flying near bedtime, so after the kids have wiggled their waggles away, she’s going to get them in the mindset of bedtime by putting on their pj’s and brushing their teeth.  On the plane, she’ll give them their warm milk, read their bedtime stories, whisper their lullabies and snuggle the best she can.
  8. Once they board, this mom is going to befriend the people sitting right near her family and offer to buy them drinks. After that, she is not going to look at them or worry about what they are thinking.  She’s going to focus on doing her best to get through the flight with minimal brain damage.  Trying to please everyone around her is not her job. Employing her best parenting skills with her kids… THAT is her job.
  9. Now that game/challenge/experiment that she cued up a while back comes into play. She will challenge her two year old to see if she can stay seated and use her indoor voice for three minutes.  During that time, she’ll talk to her, read to her, and be attentive.  When her daughter makes it three minutes, she’s going to trace one of the girl’s fingers on a piece of paper.  Then she’ll do it again and trace the next finger.  Then again.  And again.  When the girl’s entire hand is traced, she’ll get to pick a little wrapped prize that mom has tucked into the carry-on.  At this rate, she’ll have checked the box on fifteen peaceful minutes. If she can do a handful of these cycles, she will have gotten through take off and a good chunk of the flight.  And, more importantly, she will have given her daughter practice at doing what mom wants her to do…. sit quietly and use her indoor voice.  This is so much more effective than focusing on what she doesn’t want her to do: run and scream.

That’s it.  After all that, she’ll focus on bedtime stories and getting her daughter to sleep. The trip probably won’t go perfectly, but then, many challenges with toddlers don’t.  But this mom feels more prepared and hopeful and she has some things to focus on to up the odds that at least a good part of the trip goes better than it might have.

One last thought: even though it can be exhausting and embarrassing flying with toddlers, I hope you don’t wish it away.  What I’ve experienced is that they do eventually grow up and become easy to travel with.  But there’s a catch: when they get to the part where they’re easy to travel with, it’s not long until they start flying away….. away to college, away on semesters abroad, away on trips that don’t involve us.  And that, just like traveling with toddlers, brings its own kind of sweetness and its own kind of bitterness, all wrapped up in one.

Copyright December 2017 by Kerry Stutzman, LMFT, MSW.  Kerry offers parent coaching as well as marriage, family, and individual therapy.  She believes in thinking differently about how we think about things.

3 Tips for Parenting in December Without Losing Your Ho! Ho! Ho!

It happens every year.  The sweet mother of two young children sat in my office, slouched over, and shared how she dreads December.  “I take on too much,” she sighed.  Then she gets overloaded, becomes irritable with her kids and ends up hating the stress of December.  All that effort for the sake of her family having good holiday memories and she ends up depleted and grumpy.  The impossibly long list of thoughtful, creative things things she expects herself to do overwhelms her.  We all know she’s not alone.

She walked out of her parent coaching session with three assignments:


  1. Make a list of every single task you expect yourself to do in December.  Does that mean one task is getting the tree, another is putting on the lights, and another is decorating it?  Yup.
  2. Put them in order by date due.
  3. Circle the ones you LOVE to do.  These are ones that make you happy and have meaning.
  4. Circle the ones you HATE to do.  The ones that make you grumpy when you are doing them.
  5. If you have a significant other, have them do the same thing on the same list.
  6. For the tasks on the “HATE” list, figure out a way to dump the item.  Or at least read Assignment #2 for ways to survive them.
  7. For the ones in the middle, decide if there are ways to simplify or delegate.  For example, I make hot fudge sauce for my neighbors, teachers and relatives. Some years, they were decorated with painstakingly fancy labels. Some years, all I could do was make the fudge and slap on a computer-printed label.  But if it preserved a little of my sanity and left me a little more able to be sweet to my children, it was worth it.  Simplifying can be wonderful.


Many of us value holiday traditions and want our kids to grow up with good memories.  But hear me when I tell you this: you don’t have to do every tradition every year in order for your kids to have great memories.  My friend grew up with a memory of her mom doing a cookie exchange.  She remembered that every year, she came home to a group of women in the kitchen who had baked and exchanged dozens and dozens of cookies.  My friend took it upon herself to continue the tradition whether she felt like it or not. It wasn’t until her kids were teens when she friend learned that her mom had only done that a few times ever. Nowhere close to every year.  She did it on the years that it suited.

So as you think about your traditions and how they stress you, what if you consider rotating them?

If it’s going to cause stress, what if you give yourself permission to pass on it for a year?  You don’t have to dump it forever; you can decide year by year.  Sometimes we have to pick:  tradition or calm state of mind.  A grumpy, stressed out mommy is generally NOT what our kids need, so why do we keep setting ourselves up to feel overwhelmed?


Ok, truth is, there are some things we really want to do and we want to be happy about but it ends up feeling like a chore. To that, I say: think outside the box to find a way to make it enjoyable.

Have a mountain of gifts to wrap?

What if you do it with a friend?  My girlfriend and I used to take turns hauling our stuff to each other’s house to wrap together while we listened to Christmas music and chatted.  It was highly productive AND fun.

Signing Christmas cards or online shopping?

Another girlfriend lights candles, pours herself something good to drink, turns on good music, and tells herself that it’s a treat to sit and think about the people she loves as she shops and/or signs cards. Works for her.

How about having a friend or family member over to bake while your kids play with theirs?

My girlfriend and I have done this for years: the kids played, we baked, and everyone was happy.

While it may well feel like Christmas has become this huge, commercialized machine of expectations, we do have a choice about how we choose to participate. You have a vote in this.

It’s ok to say NO to being overwhelmed so that you can YES to showing up for your kids and yourself.


Kerry Stutzman, MSW, LMFT
©2016 Kerry Stutzman, Head & Heart Parents


Head & Heart Parents is owned by Kerry Stutzman, MSW, LMFT, a Marriage and Family Therapist and certified Love and Logic Parenting Instructor. In addition to private therapy and parent consulting services, Kerry offers parenting classes and workshops in Denver and the surrounding areas for toddlers, elementary, and teenage children.