DEAR MAYO CLINIC: A few months ago my 12-year-old daughter and I were on a flight that had significant turbulence, which was really upsetting for her. Since then, she has had nightmares about the flight and has told me almost daily that she will never fly again. We have a wedding coming up that will require us to fly, and she insists that she will not go. What can I say to her that will help calm her fears? Should I have her evaluated by a psychologist?
ANSWER: Your daughter’s situation is not unusual. It’s common for children to develop fears, particularly in response to an unsettling experience. There are a number of steps you can take at home to help her better understand and become more familiar with what she fears. As that happens, it’s likely her fear will become less overwhelming and, even if it doesn’t go away completely, she may be able to manage it more effectively.
First, as you work with your daughter to help her manage her fear of flying, remain calm and encouraging. Keep all your interactions about this topic warm and supportive. Let her know you care about her and you want to help her.
Second, reassure her that what she’s going through is normal. Everyone is afraid of something. There’s nothing wrong with being scared going into a situation that frightened you in the past. It’s perfectly reasonable to be afraid of flying when you had a bad experience on a plane. But, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the situation. In fact, avoidance may make it worse. There are ways to lessen our fears.
One good way to help manage fear is to get more information about what’s causing it. To help your daughter do this, provide her with basic information about the overall safety of flying. Use reliable sources that she can read or refer to on her own. Don’t simply say, “Flying is safe. Don’t worry about it.” Unless you are a pilot or an aviation expert, your word probably is not enough to reassure her at this time. Also, educate her about what turbulence is and what causes it. Understanding why something happens can make it more predictable and understandable. And, that makes it less scary.
Next, help your daughter become less anxious when she thinks about flying by facing her fears, rather than avoiding them. Try to find videos that show turbulence. Watch them by yourself first to make sure they are appropriate for your daughter to see. Then, show them to her. Watch them with her over and over again until they get boring. This type of exposure to a fear-producing situation in a safe environment gradually can reduce anxiety about the situation overall.
You can take the same approach to your daughter’s nightmares. Ask her to tell you in detail about her disturbing dreams. Then, have her write down everything she can remember about those dreams. Review the details, and talk with her about her dreams until they no longer elicit a fearful response.
By examining and better understanding what’s making her afraid, you are helping your daughter see that she can manage her fear. It might not take away her fear of flying completely, and she may still feel uncomfortable about getting on a plane, but, by going through these steps with her, you help her reduce the power fear has over her.
If you try these techniques and your daughter still remains extremely fearful of flying, consider making an appointment for her with a psychologist who has experience working with children and adolescents dealing with anxiety. — Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota