How Should I Handle Screaming Kids Inflight .. Who Just Won’t Stop?

What started out as a fantastic, albeit early (3:30am alarm!) travel day yesterday turned sour in the afternoon. A three and a half hour delay for my connecting flight, with very little information forthcoming, had me worn out. Finally taxiing out I was looking forward to just closing my eyes when…

.. the child seated behind me started kicking my seat. And didn’t stop. His younger sibling started screaming. Then they both started screaming. At first the parents did nothing. Then the father reached across the aisle to stop the kid from kicking me, and his wife scolded him for it. They started fighting. And it got worse from there.

It turns out that despite advances in technology, there’s no such thing as “Screaming Children Immediately Behind You Cancelling Headsets.”

And there’s also no such thing as “Children Kicking Your Seatback Cancelling Headsets,” either.

I’ve often said that I rarely get excised over noisy children. Their ears could hurt, and they don’t know how to express it. They may not know what’s going on, and could be scared, by turbulence. Neither one of those was taking place here, but I almost always temper any frustrations based on the behavior of the parents. Most parents do their best to try to calm their kids, and not to disturb their neighbors. Some seem to just ‘check out’ once on the flight. I know it’s hard, but simply sitting there as though nothing is amiss frustrates me most.

This might have been the worst. Parents arguing instead of minding their children, escalating the situation, the hostile environment only made the kids even more unhappy – and louder.

Perhaps I should feel for the kids in this circumstance, but I’ll be selfish and say that I felt for myself. I wanted to close my eyes, I was tired, I lacked patience. And frankly, I didn’t know what to do so my empathy would have been wasted.

I know a decent amount about travel, I think. I know how to handle most situations, play the odds, make backup plans, get rebooked quickly when needed, find cheap prices.. you name it.

But my etiquette with children, especially other peoples’ children? I’m at a loss. With shrieking behind me, kicking my seat, is there anything I could have done? I didn’t say anything I figured that my adding stress to the parents, who were already fighting wouldn’t have made things better. The flight attendant on the regional jet ignored it, I could have said something to her but then what? Would she have been able to stop it? I had visions of a situation escalating between her and the parents, followed by a diversion. I just wanted to get home.

Of course the flight eventually ended, I didn’t nap but then I would have been tired this morning either way.

What would you have done? Is there anything I could have done? What would you have said?

Bad things happen in travel – weather, mechanicals – sometimes you just have to take it as it comes and deal with it. Should screeching and kicking my seatback just be one of those?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

More articles by Gary Leff »



  1. so the parents were seated together while their kids were sitting across the aisle? that’s a recipe for disaster

    anyway, if that was the configuration, then I would have asked to change seats with one of the parents. kids kicking seatbacks is bad but kids kicking seatbacks while parents do nothing is unacceptable

  2. Being based in Orlando and making frequent trips back and forth to London I’ve experienced this more times than I would like to remember. I think that how you chose to handle the situation is about as well as you could have. If the parents were arguing instead of tending to their children than anything to said to them or the flight attendant was only going to make it worse.

    For me I would have ordered a rum and coke and then said “You know what make it a double” while glancing over my shoulder.

  3. Since the parents were aware of the children’s behavior, I might have asked one of the parents to switch seats with me so he/she could be closer to the kids. But based on your description of the parents, it’s unlikely they would “get it.”

  4. I am on the same boat as you. Etiquette with other’s people children and knowing how soon and bad the next Delta points devaluation will happen as well as making any use of their miles at all are the only things I cannot master yet.

  5. I doubt the parent would have switched seats with you but it seems like the parents should have sat apart, each next to one of their children. Not going to the FA was a good idea. Dont need the parents to get in a verbal altercation with the FA.

  6. I’ve got 3 kids and we travel overseas quite frequently. My wife and I are always painfully aware of people around us … we even had the Dalai Lama sitting directly behind us on one flight. Sounds like the mother was in the wrong here since the father at least “tried” to stop his child from kicking your seat. Lots of things the parents should have done … split the kids up and sit one parent/one child. Give the kids electronics to distract them or read them stories. Walk them around the plane. But as to your question as to what YOU could have done, short of getting seated elsewhere, I see no alternative other than doing what you did … nothing. Given that the parents’ were already arguing, you or the attendant getting involved would only have made the situation worse. Some parents are just plain ignorant and it looks like you drew the short straw on this flight. If it would have made you feel better, you could have politely and apologetically suggested to them to switch seats so it’s one parent/one child with a parent sitting behind you since you have a very bad back and the incessant kicking is aggravating it (ye ole feigned medical condition ploy) … whether it worked or not, at least they would know you were bothered and they might pretend to be more considerate.

  7. I would love to hear a constructive comment, hope someone comes up with one, this has happened to me before and I also did nothing. But I feel doing nothing lets the parents behave the same way in the future.

  8. I’m on the fence here, but I’d be furious. First, I travel moderately (50k to 75k a year for the last 15 years, wide variety of flights), so I know what I am doing. Second, I have three children in the “wreaking havoc” age: 4, 4 and 6. So I know what is going on from that end.
    In general, I find most parents act like my wife and I do: they make their kids behave and are terrified of their kids acting badly. An RJ is a harder environment, but also a shorter one.
    That said, as a parent and a flyer, what I do in this situation is actually directly address the child and say something like “excuse me, but it’s very impolite to kick the seat, could you please stop.” I’ve never had that not work (though once it took asking twice). It usually gets the parents attention, and most kids that age are not a-holes (I’d not do the same to an adult).
    Screaming is a different issue – presumably the kid screaming was much younger. My time limit would be 15 minutes of “parents sitting across the aisle from a screaming kid” before I talked to the FA. I have no time limit for “screaming kid sitting with a parent,” because that is a situation you can’t control and one the FA can’t improve. But letting a badly behaved older child babysit a screaming child so you can fight with your husband is terrible, and presumably the FA would ask the parents to swap with a kid. That would have resolved at least two and possibly all three issues.
    Anyway, I know in this day and age there’s basically no social contract and some parents might be unhappy if you talk to their kids. But as I learned from my mother in law (a retired kindergarten teacher of 40+ years) there is absolutely nothing wrong with politely telling a young child they are doing something wrong. And in this case, they are in no uncertain terms doing something wrong (kicking the seat, that is).

  9. I think you should have politely asked the father if he could stop the kicking, and if it continued, ask to trade seats with one of the parents. Escalate it with the FA if they refuse. You can’t control the screaming nor can you force the parents to either, but it’s unreasonable to expect you to endure seat back kicking.

  10. As a seat kickee and also the parent of a child that used to be a habitual seat kicker, this is a tough issue.

    I used to have terrible trouble getting my son to stop tapping the seat ahead of us. For a period, he simply could not control it. He would stop when I told him to, but then a few minutes later he would forget and it was like a nervous thing. A few times, I apologized to the person in the seat and let them know I was trying, which usually worked. Sometimes, it only made it worse, as I would get a lecture about it being my job to control the situation, and so I’d basically have to sit with my arm on his knee throughout.

    As for what to do when it happens to me, I keep my mouth shut and just ride it out. No matter what I think I know about another family based on the snippet of time I see into their lives, I really don’t. It’s just not worth it to me, and thought I have frequently been left with the firm impression that parents do not have proper sensibilities with respect to consideration for others, it’s just not my style and it’s not worth it. I know others feel differently.

  11. While I agree with bode (and his MiL) that there is nothing wrong with telling a child they are doing something wrong, in this particular case, I think it would have inflamed the situation.

    The first thing that goes through my mind in cases like this, is that it’s not the kids fault. The second thing is that it’s the parents fault and if the parents, who know better, allow their children to continue to behave in this manner, then me talking to their kid directly will likely piss off mom and/or dad and make matters worse.

    However, If dad was sitting across the aisle from mom and kids and I was on the aisle in front of mom and kids, I would have stood up, turned around and said to dad, “How about you sit here and I’ll sit there. Maybe your son/daughter will stop kicking the seat back with you in it”.

  12. Long time reader and admirer here, but I have to differ a little bit from the tone and sentiment expressed in this post and some of the comments. Now that I have two young kids of my own, I wish I have shown more empathy and sympathy before towards situations you described, and find myself more prepared to give the benefits of the doubt to young parents, most of whom (maybe not apparent in your case yesterday) work very hard not to be a problem to the traveling public Trust me we try. We don’t always succeed.

    The parents you encountered didn’t sound very functional during the flight. Maybe they should have done things differently or offered to switch seat with you. But you didn’t have control over how they behave. What you did have control over was how much you kick and scream inside yourself, vs. just write it off as a bad day in the office, thinking about how bad the parents might have already been feeling (maybe they weren’t but that’s not the point), and about how many other things could have gone wrong in much worse ways but didn’t.

    All that said, I do like to idea to at least ask if one of the parents would switch seat with you. Or ask the flight attendant whether there is any other empty seat…

  13. tell the kid to stop kicking the chair. if he doesn’t tell the parents to get their kids under control.

    i’m assuming you were in FC? i’ve argued it time and time again – kids do NOT belong in a premium cabin.

  14. I had to deal with a seat disturbance myself last year. Circumstances are a bit different but it was very annoying.

    I was on a intl flight to London with my wife and there was an older couple behind me. The gentleman decided to play one of the games on the AVOD. Well it must have required him to constantly press the screen and as you know most of the AVOD are not very responsive and sometimes require multiple efforts. Couple that with the fact that the AVOD are located in the headrests and that he was using enough force to actually move it each time he poked at it.

    At first I thought he was just trying to find a movie. So I was patient and just tried to ignore it. But after an hour of constant poking I finally had to get up and speak to him. Thankfully the meal service was over and he ended up stopping and falling asleep. Not sure what I would have done if he had continued.

  15. First, I would make the request myself politely.
    Second, if that didn’t work, I would tell the flight attendant.

    I don’t believe having the flight attendant ask them would make it worse. How worse could it be if the parents are screaming. It’s likely they would stop screaming when the flight attendant talks to them.

  16. Having to teach my kids not to kick the seat in front of them, not to play with everything in the seat pocket, and not to beat on the tray table, I’ll say the parents didn’t do a very good job.

    But in the spirit of humanity, I would have turned around and said “Hi, I’m very tired and would like to get some rest. Please don’t kick my seat or be very loud. Thanks”. The parents would see what was happening and more then likely get the point.

  17. I once had a boy who looked to be about 4 or 5 who wouldn’t stop kicking my seat. So I turned around any in a sing-song voice said, “hey buddy, it really hurts when you do that to my seat. can you please try not to do it anymore? If you don’t, I will give you a treat when we land” the mother was horrifed and turned white (I think she was expecting me to yell) anyway, the behavior stopped. I thanked the boy, told him he was such a good flyer, and gave him a stick of gum when we landed.

  18. That’s why traveler with younger kids should have the exit row seats. That will solve seats kicking problem right away.

  19. Something like this happened to me this past Saturday flying from JFK-LAX. Family with 5 kids, sat 2 boys aged ~5 or 6 behind me and another guy. The wife was with a younger daughter across the aisle and the father was somewhere farther back and didn’t really care what was going on. I asked one of the kids if he could please stop kicking the seat because I felt it every time. He stopped and the mother thanked me for saying something to the kid…..

  20. Stand up, apply burning stare to child with narrowed eyelids. Look at parent. Once she locks eyes with you, shift focus back to child then rapidly back to parent. Raise eyebrows and rapidly blink at her. Repeat as necessary. Remain silent.

  21. My partner probably would have said something along the lines of “please control your monsters, or I will”. Probably not good advice, but he tales no s*** and I enjoy watching him in action!

  22. So sorry you had a bad flight after what was already a long and stressful delay. Truly. Now I’ll play the other side and say that that family probably had the exact same day (maybe minus the 3:30AM start, but who knows with kids). The parents were potentially worn out after the same long delay and now were going at each other instead of focusing their energy in a more productive manner.

    That gives me some empathy for that situation, but it in no way excuses them from parenting their kids through the entire flight. Not sure why they wouldn’t each sit with a kid – especially if they were not happy with each other anyway.

    As to what you can do, I think there are a couple options beyond just sucking it up and counting the minutes until wheels down. As a mom, I’ve usually got some toys stuffed in my purse that I might offer (with their parents permission). That may break the ice and start a conversation anyway. I doubt you have plastic animal toys or cars in your purse, so probably wouldn’t work in your case.

    Another option is just lie. Lesson the blow and likelihood of defensiveness by lying. Politely and non-confrontantionally (made up word?) tell the parents that you know the kids are probably wiped out from the delay, but you have back problems and when they get excited and kick the seat it is really hurting.

    No blame is placed on anyone, they are clearly aware the issue is impacting you, and hopefully it will be enough motivation to stop it. If that doesn’t work, then you get decide where to go from there, if anywhere.

    Glad you made it home!

  23. Hard call. Like most other parents, I expect the parents to have contingency plans for their upset children. It sounds like these parents didn’t. Also, I always advocate families sitting two-behind-two rather than four-in-a-row (when you can get assignments!) because it makes for much more flexibility — kids can be split up (or together, if that works), a seat-kicker can be placed behind a parent rather than another passenger, etc. Also, you can get two window seats that way, to avoid arguments. At 12 and 14 my own kids are just outgrowing the point in which I feel the need to fly two-behind-two.

    However, if the parents aren’t willing or able to handle the situation I don’t think talking to them or to the flight attendant (except to get yourself moved to another part of the cabin, if seats are available) is likely to help.

    The only thing you could possibly do, if the kids are old enough and the situation seems amendable, it to handle the children directly. In most cases, children are upset because they’re bored or they’re confused (it’s amazing how poorly many parents prepare their children for even a simple car ride, let alone a plane flight). The important thing is not to scold them on their behavior, but to get them onto another track entirely. You might start with “Hey, I’m with you! I remember the first time I was on an airplane my dad made me put on a tie, it was such a big deal! Now it’s like riding on the bus! At least they still give you something to drink. What do you like to drink when you’re on a plane? I usually have a can of soda — I don’t drink soda normally, but it’s like my special “I’m on a plane” treat. Where are you flying to? Really? I think I saw an article about that in the in-flight magazine. Let’s take a look . . .”

    Most kids will be so shocked at being addressed by a stranger they’ll probably quite right up — at least for the time you keep them engaged. A few might hide in their parent’s laps (which is just as good for your purpose).

  24. Just had the seat kicking happen on an inter island flight. Girl around 5 or 6 was kicking husband’s seat. Hubby has ruptured discs, etc. so he didn’t tolerate it long. He turned around and politely asked the mother to ask her child to stop kicking the seat. It worked…although it was only a 25 minute flight, so who knows if she would have lasted longer.

  25. You took the high road and thought about the arguing parents and the kids’ situation before your own. I respect that. In this specific case, I’d do the same thing again.

  26. Well, since turning around and shouting or slapping the kid will likely cause you trouble I vote for asking one of the parents if you can change seats with them. If they refuse and the child was really bothering you I would try bribing the kid to stop with a reward. If that doesn’t work then you sit there and take it.

  27. A lot of kids, even many difficult ones, will listen to strangers (and comply with their requests) more than their parents.

    Next time, along the lines of what LarryInNYC said, you could try asking the kids directly. “Hey, it bothers me when you kick my seat. Would you try really hard not to do that?” I wouldn’t necessarily go all the way to bribe/reward on first contact, just treat them like grown-ups and see how they respond.

    Then, if they don’t, I’d go to the parents as Step Two. Asking one of the parents to switch with the seat behind you is a marvelous idea.

  28. I think we should raise kids in other countries and just let them come to the US when they are adults. 🙂

  29. We had a big issue with screaming kids in C on a long flight from LAX-SYD on Virgin Australia recently. While unhelpful parents make things worse, the core issue to me is what policy airlines should have regarding kids in luxury classes.

    I have written to Virgin Australia management and I’ll withhold further details or comments until I get an answer.

    BTW, I never address other passengers directly if I have a problem, much less if they are children. I call an FA and ask for intervention.

  30. Just to follow-up on my earlier post: I wrote earlier about “no social contract” but the posts here just prove it. There is absolutely no world in which is it OK for a kid to be out of control. That does not mean I do not have sympathy: I have three kids, and this happens. To me. But it doesn’t mean it’s right, and it doesn’t mean everyone else has to be subordinate to your worthless parenting. Out of control kids happen. A-hole parents are absolutely inexcusable and it doesn’t make you a bad person to point it out.
    Think about this: would that kids teacher at school would accept that behavior? The answer is absolutely not. Everyone here defending “the difficulty of traveling with children” is ignoring the fact that there are two adults, two kids, and the adults completely and totally abandoned their responsibilities for those two kids. There is no excuse in the world for that and there is consequently nothing wrong with asking to make it better. Will the kids scream more or kick more because you politely asked them to stop? No. Will the parents glare at you? Oh well – those are the same parents who get angry at my MiL when she tells their kids not the throw rocks at cars.
    It’s not like this is a judgement call – screaming kids and kicking seats are universally frowned upon. Parents doing nothing to help? Ditto. I just don’t believe that being polite and making a reasonable request could possibly make things worse, and might make it better. And I’m speaking as someone who once saw a woman punch another woman in a seat dispute on a Southwest flight out of Midway and exit the plane with a police escort. This was not that situation.

  31. While not the exact situation, I had a similar problem with a child and parent. While at the acrobat show in Beijing, a family from Sweeden filled the entire row 1. I was in row 2. A girl of about 9 or so was right in front of me so I figured I was lucky I didn’t have somebody tall in front of me as I’m not tall at all. Just as the show started she decided row 1 wasn’t close enough for her and she then got up and sat on the top of the seat. I couldn’t see a thing. I put up with it for a couple minutes not knowing why she was doing this.The parents were paying no attention. I then tapped the girl on the shoulder and with a big smile, just motioned with my hand for her to sit back down in her seat. To my surprise, she gave me a dirty look and shook her head NO. I repeated it and again NO. I then tapped her mother on the shoulder who was seated next to her and she just ignored my repeated taps. I had to get an usher in the middle of the performance to talk to them. Before the usher arrived, just to spite me, the girl moved over 5 seats to sit on a relatives lap rather than have me “win” I guess. I think you should have asked the FA to address the problem.

  32. While there’s nothing you can do about the screaming, you should have said something about the kid kicking. This is a perfect time for a lesson learned, and it doesn’t have to be a screaming match. If the parents object, ask them to switch seat with you so they can endure the seat kicking themselves.

  33. Switch seats with the person behind the parents and then kick the back of their seats.

    No, seriously, the big mistake here is the 4-across seating instead of the 2X2. If they’re going to be taking their kids on airplanes, it does not mean “break time” for them. When we travel with our twins, it’s always one parent with each kid. Any misbehavior is dealt with quickly.

  34. One of the unpublicized perks of “elite seating” programs like UA’s economy plus is that you’re WAY less likely to get your seat kicked or a screaming kid next to you. These schemes tend to keep the families away, and the extra pitch keeps feet off your seat.

  35. I would have wanted to keelhaul them. But of course that just gets me in trouble.

    My first move would be to do something like mommypoints said. Start a conversation to inform without losing my lid. Then to the FA. If the FA does nothing, company twitter because at that point, the FA is as much to blame as a parent taking time off.

    Too many people forget every single child in this world is a choice. Once you make that choice, you have to deal with the consequences. And if that means still being a parent when you’re just as wiped out as everyone else, too bleeping bad. That’s the life you chose. Be a parent. And most of all, in a plane is not the time to let the child work it out or cry it out or what ever nonsense a parent uses to justify their not dealing with the child.

    Basically, like you Gary, the actions of adults involved would escalate or ease my mood about it more than the actions of the children.

    If all else fails, spitballs work ever time. (kidding, of course)

  36. LOL at the non parents who are saying that kids should not be allowed in premium cabins. By this summer, my now 4 and 8 year olds will have been to 5 of the 7 continents, all in business or first class. We are currently in the middle of a 7 leg RTW trip. The only time they have been a problem was an economy class flight home from Maui last year when flight was full and they were not able to stretch out. If anything, kids should behave better with the extra room and better entertainment system up front. There is no way to generalize all kids for rules like that. My brother has similar aged kids who rarely travel. They would be the kids that should be banned from premium cabins since they are pains in the ass when traveling.

  37. I would have given the situation perhaps 30 minutes to resolve itself, whether with the parents’ taking more action or the kids calming down on their own. Then I would have spoken in a polite tone to the child, followed (if necessary) by the parents and finally the FA. Asking a parent to switch seats is an interesting idea that would not have occurred to me, but if this happens in the future I might make that part of the mix.

    There are two aspects of this situation that make this different from others involving kids’ misbehaving. First, one parent was trying to take some positive action, so your speaking up might have helped him overcome his wife’s negative attitude in that regard, Gary.

    In addition, I wonder if you felt a bit constrained by being something of a known and respected personality in the frequent flyer community, Gary. No matter how well you handled the situation, all you would need is an out-of-context youtube video that could make you look bad, however unfairly.

  38. Love comments from non-parents or always-away-while-the-kids-grow-up parents–you have very little clue what goes into being a mom or dad.

  39. Hilarious. Everyone’s too afraid to tell the brats to stop? No wonder kids get away with this sort of behavior.

  40. Paul, I don’t think that asking the kids to stop is necessarily a terrible idea (if done in a polite and friendly way), but you never know how a parent will react to someone giving kids instruction when they are clearly already stressed, and a closed environment at 36k feet may not be the best time to find out.

    Part of this whole thing is not wanting to make what is already a bad situation worse. The social direction of parenting is not a cultural issue to be tackled on an airplane.

  41. I normally think people who recline their seats are evil, but in a case where some little brat is kicking the back of my seat and wouldn’t stop, I’d make an exception. Just recline your seat as far back as it can go! 🙂

  42. I have had kicking crying kids behind me enough to dread even having children seated behind me on flights and seeing if I have the uncontrolled kids or the gentler controlled ones. Cant do anything and at the mercy of any parents who do not believe in restraining their undisciplined children and don’t really care about anyone but themselves. I expect that these parent will reap what they sow when the undisciplined brats grow up to be undisciplined adults (which I have also witnessed).

Comments are closed.