Coffee, Tea, Sympathy?

Tantrum on plane via

Tantrum on plane via

Trans-Atlantic Flights with Hyperactive Kids

I’m sharing a 12-hour flight with a few hundred folk, one of which is 3 years old and has either been wiggling or screaming every minute of the flight so far. Before we even took off, my wife nodded in his direction and whispered, “Future patient.” We still have six more hours to go. Did I mention that he is sitting only two seats away from me?

His mother is exhausted. She hasn’t stopped attending to him, because she cannot. He moves from task to task. She invents new ones every minute or two to engage his interest and keep him from running down the aisle. He hops on and off her lap every few minutes. Sometimes he wails for no clear reason. Sometimes he hits or head-butts his mom. She is attentive and gentle. I can’t understand her language, but her voice is kind and low.

Airplane travelers don’t have much sympathy for kids behaving badly on planes. 71% sided with a Jet Blue pilot that removed a family from a plane when the two-year old threw a tantrum about buckling in for take-off. I’d like to know why the professionals who design cramped airline seats and chaotic boarding regimens aren’t kicked off flights. What they did ruins my flight experience far more than the normal behaviors of little people.

Mr. Wiggles is wailing again, but it doesn’t bother me. I feel for him. Being a parent has changed me. Twenty-something years ago when I had no actual parenting experience but lots of opinions, I would have hated the little guy and the mother unable to control him. I’d have been leading the 71% charge. We’re flying over Greenland at the moment and it’s easy to tell from the irritated glances in our area that 71% would be happy to swoop down and drop him off.

Now, after parenting several children including two with ADHD, I have deep sympathy for this mother and young boy. The middle seats of jumbo jets were crafted around the needs of businessmen and tourists, not active preschool people. I’ve sat in those seats with my own young children.

We learned not to fly with our own kids during a single cross-country flight with our first son when he was three. My wife and I together couldn’t keep him belted in the seat. “Not turb-oh-lent” he announced as he slid under his seat-belt onto the floor. 35,000 feet above Denver, our pilot was busy fighting turbulence and charitably allowed him to stay on the plane.

Our son was indignant that his kid meal burger and fries came without a Happy Meal toy. One flight attendant dug up a little United Airlines 747 to mollify him, but it didn’t transform into anything, so he threw it at her. I wore a lapful of his chocolate shake from somewhere over St. Louis to our destination an hour outside Portland, Oregon. He wailed for most of the ascent and all of the descent. Five years later, he was diagnosed with ADHHHHHD.

In the seat directly behind Mr. Wiggles on today’s flight, sits the sweetest, most well-behaved little girl you could hope to share a journey with. She appears to be three as well. She plays quietly with little attention or redirection from her parents. At one point, she looked at picture books for over an hour. Her dress is neat as she lies with her head on her mother’s lap and entertains herself with the beam of a flashlight.

Her parents are relaxed. Every 20 or 30 minutes, they’ll offer something to do which she does quietly. Life in the row behind would be serene if not for her cough. It comes in waves every couple hours. It has the wheezy, wet sound of an early bronchitis. Two flight attendants express their concern and offer of assistance. No need, says the mother. It might be allergies. The flight attendants are very professional and very concerned. They will stand by to do anything they can to help.

The flight attendants haven’t offered any assistance to the exhausted mom with the hyperactive boy. (That’s an observation, not a diagnosis, by the way.)  She’s in the middle of a nonstop 12-hour parenting shift that butts up against another and another for 18 more years.

Both three year-olds have biological conditions that are public and obvious in this hushed sea of tourists and business travelers. Neither child is doing anything other than what genetics and metabolism compel. One mom with very little to do is offered sympathy and help. The exhausted one with the impossible job gets dirty glances.

Kids who might be diagnosed with ADHHHHD in five years have one speed, named top. They walk 50 yards by sprinting-stopping 5 times. They stand still by spinning. They move incessantly or they fall asleep with no in-between options. They cannot dial it up or down. Nature hasn’t given them that option yet, if ever.

It’s a hard life in the middle seat of a jumbo jet for 12 hours when you can’t stop running, and there’s no sympathy for the exhausted mother.

Maybe she could teach him to cough.

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

Posted in ADHD
9 comments on “Coffee, Tea, Sympathy?
  1. Netanya Bregman says:

    I have a six year old Dx ADHD 18 months ago, even medicated, the flight from South Africa to the U.S. Was sheer toeturw for him, me and other pax. I totally identify with the article above, even at six, there are only. So many movies a child can watch, so much he can eat, my son kicked the seat of the pax in front, spilled juice on the pax next to him and kept shoving the pillow to the pax behind. His father, who denied and threatened to sue his pediatrician for medicating him before the pharmalogical companies insert age recommendation of six, wants me to send my six year old unaccompanied on a flight from Atlanta GA to Johannesburg South Africa and then connect to Cape Town, he believes, that the air Crew responsible for inaccpanied minors are going to provide adequate care, your thoughts Doctor?


  2. Barb johns says:

    Thank you for taking the time to write from your knowledge but more importantly, experience. I only wish you were around 25 years ago to bring perspective to a discouraged mother who very definitely has felt those judgemental eyes from others. Beyond that, came the uninvited advice from those who had no real understanding. Mothering an ADHD child has shaped me for the better but not without its costs. Out of this cost however has come great, great treasure. Thanks again!


  3. Annie Kendra says:

    Thanks for sharing your writing, Oren. So true and my heart goes out to the woman with the active boy. I’ve walked in her shoes and felt those angry looks from others. I admire her ability to stay calm and quiet with her voice and her gentleness. To this day, when I see a mother or father going through this at a store, a restaurant, etc., I try to give them a word of encouragement and a smile. In my mind, I say a prayer for the child and for the parents because I understand. They don’t need more angry looks, they need understanding and reassurance.
    I wish I would have read an article like this when we were raising our children. It would have felt like a warm blanket of understanding in the midst of a lot of cold stares. Thanks, Oren.


  4. chaddgr says:

    You nailed it!

    It seems like only yesterday… he was scooting under the walls of stalls of public restrooms and changing rooms in department stores, or boltlng from our car across parking lots, or climbing up the protruding bricks outside of Fun for Fours, looking in the windows, before I could peel him off, waiting for it to open. It seems like only yesterday that I overheard someone comment, “You know all that kid needs!” Even his grandparents didn’t invite us to Christmas, when he was three, (before being diagnosed), though they’d invited the families of their other grandchildren. When my husband asked his mother why we weren’t invited, she said she wanted “a quiet Christmas,” that year.

    I’m glad you compared how these parents are treated with the compassion shown toward the parents of kiddos whose problems don’t affect behavior. I am also glad you bought up how you have become a more compassionate, open-minded human being as a result of having flown miles in these moccasins.

    I wish the founder of JetBlue, David Neeleman, (who invented the e-ticket, perhaps after having forgotten his own, at home, and has made no secret about having AD/HD, himself), could come up with some creative way for kids to enjoy themselves, while in flight, which we might all be able to benefit from now that Sky Mall has gone out of business, –other than wing walking and sky diving. At least, on an airplane, a parent knows where their child is, …if not exactly where.


  5. Thanks again for these wonderful insights into ADHD. I draw upon your comments in my work here in Australia. Keep it up. Kind regards Mark Brandtman


  6. “One mom with very little to do is offered sympathy and help. The exhausted one with the impossible job gets dirty glances.” This made me sob, it so describes our life (8 to old boy adhd impulsivity ODD )


    • bluejuliej says:

      ODD did not exist even 20 years ago — it’s s completely made up disease that used to be called “the kid from hell”. [Note from OM: I considered the remainder of this post to be speculative and unkind, and I redacted it.]


      • Respectfully, ODD has existed for centuries, but was defined 35 years ago in the 1980 DSM-III. It is helpful to separate disruptive disorders so they are treated appropriately. Oppositional defiant disorder responds to specific treatments that would not be sufficient for children with other disruptive disorders such as anti-social personality disorder or conduct disorder. The blanket term “kid from hell” is not specific enough to guide treatment.

        I’d like to think we can do better with naming conventions, respecting the impact of our words and concepts. I’m an adoptive parent as you might be (judging by your blog’s title). Adoptive children used to be called names such as, “the bastard boy that Bill and Mary took in.” Later that became, “Bill and Mary’s adopted child,” and finally “Bill and Mary’s son”. For years, adoptive parents had to hear references to “his real mother” where educated and more sensitive people now use the more accurate terms, “birthmother” and “adoptive mother”.

        Any time we can improve accuracy and kindness at the same time, I believe we should. “Oppositional defiant disorder” is far superior on both counts to the term you referenced.


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Oren Mason MD
Oren Mason MD

Oren Mason MD

Physician specializing in diagnosis and management of attention deficit disorders and related conditions.

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