Stop staring at my screaming child on the plane

 In Why Travel?

The following occurred on a flight from Florida to Seattle in May. The events are real. The tears were real. The wine was delicious. 

Tears were pooling and threatened to spill. Ugh. I tilted my head back hoping they wouldn’t. I don’t think I could handle the added looks of pity if I began to cry.

I was in Seat 47E. I was tired. I had just held my 2-year-old son pinned to my body at the back of the plane, as he screamed and writhed about in my arms; screaming so loud I think he might have done damage to my right ear drum when I accidentally moved him, aiming his mouth just centimeters from my ear as he inhaled and let another glass breaking screech loose.

Yes, solo, couple and business travelers– my son was THAT kid that you complain about and why you ask for kid-free flights. He was throwing a tantrum and there was nothing I could do about it. I was flying home from a work trip with the boys and it would take all day, including running into nap time after an early morning start. The odds were stacked against me and your stares certainly did not help.

I stood with my son in the back of that plane, as my only option after several failed attempts to distract him, to alleviate the disruption to everyone else’s peaceful, get to sit in their own seats, 5-hour flight. A woman who had been seated in front of me came back to offer her help and a little moral support. While I appreciated this show of solidarity, especially since a man in her same row had been giving me dirty looks, it just added to my exhaustion as I desperately tried to calm my very tired boy down and either get him back into his seat to watch a movie, or pass out for a much-needed nap. Neither would happen for some time, meanwhile several people came back to give me sympathetic looks, ask if it was his ears, as if it was their obligation when trying to use the restroom.

Now I truly appreciate when I get asked if I need anything. The offer of a free glass of wine from the flight attendant was probably the best of all, but what you need to understand is that after a few minutes, your attention becomes another task as we parents try to be civil to you and take care of our unhappy child at the same time. Please give your words of comfort, but leave your lingering and pity looks at your seats. I had no room or energy for them here in the very back of the plane.


As I type this my son is now asleep on me in my seat, hopefully for at least an hour, if not two, which he really needs, and I need in order to make it home emotionally intact.

I am pondering if what I am actually feeling. Is it shame? No, definitely not. I’m not ashamed of my son at all. I’m not ashamed of the way I deal with his frustrations, exhaustions and tantrums. He is two, this is what two year olds do when they are pushed past their limits due to no fault of their own. My job is to protect him and keep him safe. If that means I have to hug him so his arms aren’t flailing about, hitting me and everything in his path than so be it.

Was I frustrated? Of course! My son was throwing an epic novel worthy tantrum. I don’t love dealing with those even at home. I am learning that my son is a high-strung little man with very definite opinions and when he is ready to calm down he will, no matter what I do. Do I want to deal with this on a plane? Of course not! I understand no one else wants to deal with this either, which is why I do try to be proactive, move to the back of the plane, inhale the “sweet” aroma of the airplane toilets, and even bribe my son if needed.

Sadly he does not take a bribe… usually. Negotiating with a two year old is just about as effective as negotiating with, well, a two year old. Someone will always lose.


My boys will lose their cool on a plane again. I will put more mileage on my pedometer when this happens as a result. As they get older and we both learn how each other tick, we will figure out ways to get through the tantrums, travel stress and frustrations that come along with life.

But please, hold your looks of pity when you watch me dealing with my exhausted boy. Offer your support. Offer up a smile that you know this too will pass and move on. Offer that glass of wine or cup of coffee. Don’t give me dirty looks, don’t stare, don’t expect brides or snacks from me, and please keep the pity out of your eyes. After all, I’m giving the same look back to you cause you get to be on a plane with us for the next five hours and I just got free wine from the flight attendant and you didn’t. Cheers.

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Showing 11 comments
  • Robin

    Been there. At least your flight attendant was nice. When it happened to me, mine told me I wasn’t allowed in the galley (a rule I’ve never heard of before or since), then elbowed my son in the head after he finally fell asleep, causing him to scream more, and THEN gave me a dirty look. Because the child unfriendly couple in front of us wasn’t enough of an issue.

    The saving grace was two older women who helped us unload without waking him after we landed. They kept telling us it was just one flight and I’d get better.

  • Dee

    I’m a flight attendant and would have happily given you AND all the people around you a free wine. I would have also given you a nod and smile of solidarity as I have been there too with the screaming and inconsolable child on a plane.

    • Keryn Means

      Dee I hope I am on a flight with you one day soon. The flight attendant on my flight truly made the difference. Her smiles, wine and pleasant response to the way I was handling my screamer put me at ease as much as she could. The only time she gave me directions was when they were coming back with the drink cart, and that was only to tell me to step over here where I could still hold him and calm him down, but we wouldn’t be run over. She didn’t yell or get cranky, just tried to help me in a bad situation and not make it worse.

  • Jessica

    Oh, you know I have been there. It’s definitely not fun, but it passes and no one- not you, or the baby, or the annoyed guy in the row in front of you, is really any worse for the wear. Keep on keeping on, mama!

  • Jennie

    Thank you for this post. I have always been somewhat nervous traveling with my two-year-old son, mainly because of all of the things I read online about how people feel about children on airplanes. I’ve flown internationally alone with him twice. Numerous times internationally with my husband, and a bunch of times across the country. He is usually pretty good. And by good, I mean that he succumbs to all of the work that we do to keep him calm. I am not sure people realize how exhausting it is to keep a toddler occupied on a seven + hour flight. I’ve had wonderful flight attendants and I have had indifferent ones. There is usually at least one tantrum, and I have learned to try not to let it stress me out too much. I know it will end. The looks that you describe are what really do me in. Or reactions, like the woman on the last flight, who took one look at me and my son and promptly ask the flight attendant if she could switch seats. She couldn’t. By the end of the flight she was actually being somewhat civil. There’s a lot about flying, however, that could change to make things easier. More than once I’ve gotten a dirty look when I ask for milk as a drink. Apparently they try to conserve the milk for people’s coffee. Load an extra milk on the plane for goodness sake. It’s not easy for me to transport myself. Or keep the rules consistent. Tired and not acting at full capacity, I installed my son’s car seat in the middle of a row on a flight to Kansas City once. We were at the gate for about 45 minutes with the flight attendants walking back-and-forth100 times, no one said anything. Finally, as we were taxiing, and my son was almost asleep, a flight attendant came by and said we had to move the seat. Of course. It makes total sense. In an emergency, I probably would have been blocked into the row. But reinstall the car seat in the two minutes before we take off? She was actually suggesting that I do that. Instead, I moved to the row behind, while my husband stayed in the row with my son. That last minute shuffle resulted in an hour-long tantrum on that flight… these are the things that make flying really stressful in my opinion.

  • The Guy

    Wonderfully constructed article Keryn.

    I must admit that I am easily agitated and distracted and have flown frequently for the last 14 years. I become highly annoyed with people who behave badly, sniff, talk on phones when on a plane, whack you with bags over their shoulders as they walk down aisle seats, play tablets too loud and so on. However there is one thing which never does annoy me and that is crying babies and young children.

    Whilst I am yet to be blessed at being a parent I know that the parent can do very little in this situation apart from attempt to pacify the child. These adorable little children have moments where only a scream, kick out, throwing of the arm or screech will do. They are yet to develop the emotional and communication skills of an elder human being.

    I would never judge a parent with a child so young.

    I think your efforts taking the child to the back of the plane are very admirable and I must admit it is rare to see that happen. (Not sure what people in the back room would think.)

    I must admit to never giving a dirty look or even a sympathetic look to a parent struggling with a tired child. After reading this I understand that those sympathetic looks may not be helpful either (?) so as usual I will carry on as normal.

    Safe travels Keryn. I hope you only come across supportive and understanding passengers on future flights.

  • Heather @ Life of a Traveling Navy Wife

    I admit, I am one of those frequent business travelers who cringes when my upgrade doesn’t come through and if I see small kids boarding a flight with their parents. I hope they aren’t seated behind me and yes, I hope for child-free flights as an option someday. HOWEVER, I appreciate parents who TRY to do something about their upset children. That makes a huge difference, and I will offer any assistance I can. Unfortunately, you are the exception and not the rule and that is why people like me stare. Most parents do nothing. You could teach them a thing or two.

    • Keryn Means

      Honestly Heather, when I see a child freaking out and their parents doing nothing I stare as well. There are one too many parents who think just because they are on a plane they are no longer a parent for those few hours they are up in the air. I feel sad for the child and angry with the parent for making anyone else feel like they should help the child out, especially when more often than not the baby’s ears hurt or, like my own son, they are just desperately tired and in need of a nap.

  • ags King

    I feel like a b**ch but the child that screeched for 8 hours from Germany to Jersey should have(tongue in cheek):
    a. his mouth taped
    b. given Dramamine or Benadryl
    c. had exorcism performed on him or
    d. handed to me!
    I AM a mom and grandma. As children, we NEVER EVER behaved like that, not for more than 60 seconds. Mom was scary and never laid a hand on us. My daughter knew better too. This was a 3 yr old, not a baby. Mum said he had “behavioral problems”…..which forgive me doesn’t mean he is allowed to impinge on 200 strangers for 8 hrs.
    Where is Mom’s backbone? Haul his butt to rear toilet and make him behave. Jeez, she’s scared to discipline him? In what universe is this ok? He will now misbehave anywhere because he just screamed for 8 hrs with NO CONSEQUENCES!!!!
    Why didn’t passengers speak up? Or attendants?
    Outrageous-I’d be calling the airline for a free voucher. I have many “problems” myself such as PTSD, severe anxiety, claustrophobia, fibro and MS. Flights step up stress, pain and that kid would send me into a frenzy!
    Not fair. Kids need to learn decorum, how ppl expect you to act. Really it’s mum and dad who are creating this monster.

  • Cg

    I agree. Why does everyone else on a flight have to suffer because of someone’s undisciplined child? Sorry – the world does not revolve around you and your child.

  • Lucy

    Having a child is a lifestyle choice & when somebody’s lifestyle choices impact on others it would be asking a lot to EXPECT other’s support with that. Smoking is also a lifestyle choice, but nobody wishes to be subjected to other people’s second hand smoke…. understandably.

    Many people say “ah well, they’re just kids” or cite a special requirement that the child has (Asperger/ADHD etc.). However, like one of the other posters I also have fibo, SPS (which means loud noises have a huge physical & psychological impact on me) and I’m also HSP – so where are the special considerations for me & my needs?… would a stewardess bring ME a glass of wine?… no, probably not.

    I used to fly a lot with my parents & they would never have tolerated me causing discomfort to other passengers, but apparently this is not normal now & parents allow children to “express themselves” a lot more…so the rest of us just have to suck it up & pretend we’re cool with it?…just doesn’t seem fair to me.

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