How to Manage Behavior Problems in the Car

Behavior Problems in the Car
Sam Edwards / Getty Images

Whether you’re going on at two-day road trip to Disney World or you’re just trying to get the grocery store, a screaming 3-year-old or squabbling siblings can wreak havoc on the trip. Managing behavior problems while you’re trying to drive can be a little complicated, but there are steps you can take to safely address misbehavior while you’re in a moving vehicle.

Make Your Expectations Clear

Prevent behavior problems before you even get into the car by establish some clear ground rules.

Choose a few rules to emphasize – like "keep your hands to yourself and use an inside voice." Talk about the rules and make sure you’re prepared to enforce them consistently.

It’s also important to discuss the safety rules. For example, tell your child he must stay in his car seat or remain buckled up until you tell him he can unbuckle. Educate your child about safety considerations in an age-appropriate manner.  

Keep Your Child Busy

Busy kids are less likely to misbehave. Listening to music, playing “I spy,” or drawing are alternatives that can keep your child occupied while headed down the road. Depending on your child’s age, limited electronics time may also be appropriate. You can also give your child a job like, "See how long it takes for you to spot three red cars."

Ignore Attention-Seeking Behavior

While some kids tend to fall asleep in the car, others seem to throw the biggest temper tantrums as soon as they’re placed in their car seats.

Ignore attention-seeking behavior, such as screaming or tantrums. If you pull over and coddle your child, or give in to your child’s demands, you’ll only reinforce the negative behavior. Make it clear that whining, complaining, and throwing a fit won’t be effective.

Address Safety Issues Immediately

Unsafe behavior needs to be addressed immediately.

If your 7-year-old unbuckles his seatbelt or your 9-year-old tries to open the door while the car is moving, pull over to address the behavior. Once you’re safely pulled over, make it clear that the car won’t move until he can behave safely.

Provide Consequences When Necessary

For less serious offenses - like yelling - provide a warning. Say something like, "If you don't stop yelling, you won't be able to watch TV when we get home." If your child doesn't comply, follow through with the consequence.

Don't say, "I'll turn this car around right now if you don't stop," unless you actually mean it. Repeated warnings and empty threats will cause behavior problems to get worse.

Praise Good Behavior

Kids get bored in the car, and often when they’re bored, they’ll misbehave to get your attention. Provide plenty of positive attention for good behavior, such as praise for sitting quietly or using an inside voice. Make your praise specific and you’ll reinforce those good behaviors. 

Create a Reward System

If you have a child who is particularly prone to misbehavior in the car, a reward system can be the most helpful behavior modification technique.

Create goals, such as “staying buckled up until I say it's safe to unbuckle” or “keeping your hands to yourself.” 

Establish specific rewards your child can earn. Link good behavior in the car to privileges, such as electronics time or an opportunity to stay up 15 minutes later. A sticker chart works well for younger children and a token economy system can be very effective with older children.

Create Practice Opportunities

If the only time you’re ever in the car with your child is when you’re going to work or school, it can be difficult to effectively address behavior problems because of the time constraints. Take practice trips in the car by going for a ride on days where you don’t have to be anywhere at a specific time. That way, if you have to pull the car over or conduct an impromptu time-out, you’ll have plenty of time to do so.

These practice sessions can help your child learn appropriate behavior in the car. It can be a good idea to begin a reward system on a practice trip to help your child gain a better understanding of how the rewards will work. Once your child has a few successful practice trips, your child will gain improved ability to manage his behavior in the car.

Continue Reading