Survive the Drive: How to Get Your Kids to Behave in the Car

Are family car trips maddening enough to send you into irritation overdrive? Ever wonder what you can do to make things “run” a bit smoother? With seven children, I’ve learned some techniques for keeping things calm in the car. Depending on your child’s age, type of behavior problems, and cognitive ability, you might select one of the following options:

1. Involve the kids in an activity. It’s hard to squabble or whine while you’re having fun. Get the kids playing a game of “I spy,” or “bingo.” And on long trips, portable DVD players can be worth their weight in gold. I think it’s better to avoid turning on video equipment for regular trips around town, if at all possible. Our children already watch too much television these days, and to go from watching it at home, to getting in the car and watching, seems a bit over the top. There is plenty to “see” in a moving car. Use DVD players on very long road trips only.

2. Use space to your advantage. It’s very difficult for a child to not to feel frustrated and irritable when someone is forced into her personal space. Kids with sensory integration disorder are often sensitive to touch, and tight passenger quarters might be unbearable. Space your kids apart as much as possible in the car. And if they are elbow to elbow, it might be time for a larger car. With our family of nine, we found that typical minivans were just too small. We had to purchase a twelve-passenger van to give us a little breathing room. Since we make several family road trips a year, the added space was well worth the investment.

3. Use a “magic” car toy. For a non-verbal or particularly difficult child, give a special comfort object, toy, or book that is pleasing, which he can only use in the car when he is behaving. He should only see the toy while you’re on drives, and at no other time (never at home). Give the child the special toy as soon as he’s seat-belted in the car. Say, “If you scream, Mommy takes the toy (or book) away.” If he begins to cry or scream during the drive, give him one verbal reminder. If he continues to scream, immediately pull over and remove the toy. He does not get it back until the next outing in the car. It may take a few episodes before it “clicks,” but this method works wonders. I used this technique to help my autistic son sit quietly in church. You can read about how I did it by clicking here.

4. Pull over and wait in silence. If things get loud and obnoxious with older children, signal and pull over in a safe place. Sit quietly and wait. Say nothing. I’ve done this a few times, and it works well. Soon the children will say, ‘Uhhh, Mom? Why are we stopped?” And you inform them that you are not going to drive any further until it is quiet.

On one occasion after doing this, the children quieted down, so I started driving again. Within a few minutes, the arguing and yelling started back up. So again, I pulled over to the side of the road and sat looking out the window, not saying a word. The kids got the message that I was serious. And they didn’t want to sit in the car, going nowhere. Besides, there’s something really eerie about Mom sitting there in silence with the car running. So they stopped arguing.

5. Use trips in the car as conversation time. Turn off the radio and engage your child in conversation. Ask about school, friends, feelings, fears. Be a good listener, and don’t be critical. A child who has your attention is less likely to misbehave.

6. Use time on a “think stool,” to be spent after the drive, as a deterrent. Sometimes when behavior is extremely inappropriate, I’ll say, “Alright, that’s ten minutes on the chair.” If my child protests or screams, I’ll say, “Now that’s twenty.” I’ll keep adding ten minutes, until the time is maxed out at sixty minutes. Then, the key is to remember the amount of time given, and when back at home the child must sit in the chair for that length of time. You MUST demonstrate that you will follow through for this to work. The child clamors out of the car and you calmly say, “Wait a minute, you have twenty minutes on the chair.” He must sit quietly for that length of time. The next time he misbehaves in the car and you give ten minutes, he’ll remember you will hold him to the time he earned. So he’ll quiet down.

Some of the most blissful, quiet moments I’ve had driving the family around took place while they were busily eating ice cream cones. However, I wouldn’t recommend this technique. You’ll pay for the peace and quiet in clean-up time. And you’ll pay again, the next day, when somebody inadvertently “finds” the mysterious missing cone that your youngest one dropped.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.