There is little surprise in seeing mums and dads flying with their kids during school holidays to an away-from-home location. Families are drawn to rekindle their connection with interstate or overseas relatives, or seek out the novelty of far-off theme parks or the adventure of a distant national park.

Among the happy-joy-joy of chirpy aeroplane passengers are uneasy, fretful youngsters who are assigned to the back of the plane as unaccompanied minors. They are the kids of separated parents who travel in holiday time to visit the other parent. Flying without mum or dad alongside is frightening for primary school-age children.


Recently, I was nearby as one young boy’s fright spilled out in shrieks for those in the back end of the plane to hear. I felt a deep heartache for the boy, knowing that such a flight would panic my own children. The boy flying solo to visit his dad reminded me of the unexpected complexities that children of separated parents have to tough out. In the upset and confusion of my own separation, there was not a lawyer, mediation service or separated friend who mentioned that unaccompanied minors could have been part of the deal.

I first saw the boy and his mum ahead of me at the checkout. I guessed he was six or seven. I overheard the lady at the check-in counter make an empathetic statement about her own childhood experience of flying at holiday time to visit her dad. The little lad tightened into his mum, giving the sense that he was out of sorts.

Mums aren’t normally allowed onto the tarmac to soothe and farewell sons or daughters at the bottom of the aeroplane stairs. I suspect that the timid behaviour of the boy and the softness of his mum prompted a kind gesture by the ground crew. I was getting on last and had a sense of comfort that caring was set ahead of the rules. As a separated parent, my glimpse of other such parents sets my mind to picture how it would be for my daughters and me in the same situation. I didn’t enjoy the thought, because seeing the fright in the boy was to visualise it in my daughters.

I sat one row ahead of five kids from a couple of families who were taking off to visit the other parent. Once buckled, I imagine they broke out iPads or colouring-in books for entertainment. Unfortunately, iPads and colouring-in just do not cut it when the plane starts to bounce like a bowling ball on a trampoline. Stewards are good to have on hand to tend to nervous solo travellers; however, I suspect that the soft rub of a parent’s hand on their child’s head is the only therapy that will cut it.

Behind me, a whimper ramped up to a pained mantra: “Help me! My ears are hurting… Help me! My ears are hurting.” As the plane continued to jolt and lurch about, the pilot chimed in to command passengers and crew to buckle in. The little aft passenger kept pleading with a combination of distress and pain for someone to help him. But the captain’s orders meant that the cabin crew had to stay seated. He really was running solo and not having a good time of it. He just sat and wailed. The noise that he made was the sound any child makes when dark fear and pain blot out everything else.


My optimistic bent believes that the young lad is loving a week of holiday excitement with his dad. I may well share his return flight to mum. His fright and the ache in his ears might overtake him again. In time, his experience could well become routine and straightforward, but right now he is playing out his new normal because happily ever after didn’t play out for his mum and dad.

One day, the adult version of the timid boy might tell his own children the story of his growing up. His account of being scared will be meaningful to him. Experiences of being scared will be a common thread for most of the 40,000 children each year who have to establish their new normal when their parents part.

The grief of that boy is still with me. His wail has lingered because it was so desolate. I could empathise because my own children sometimes give over to tears when the shuffle between mum and dad is muddled. When the separation thing gets murky, every dewdrop of sadness they shed still upsets me. While the adults may mutter a rationalised case of “it’s for the best,” (and eventually it might be), starting out, many of those 40,000 children are scared by having to piece together a new sense of security.

There is so much heartache. If you are a teacher or bus driver or bystander looking on, or the kindly ground crew, please know what to do when it is not smooth flying for one of those kids, because my daughters are somewhere in those numbers.


Photo by Vikki.

Published On: August 1st, 20230 CommentsTags: , , ,

About the Author: Greg McInerney

Greg is the father of two daughters.

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