“Are we there yet?” Having children ask that a dozen times on a road trip is such a universal experience that mentioning it usually brings a smile or chuckle. That said, trying to manage the behavior of children while you are driving or even riding in the passenger seat is no joking matter. Behavior can widely range and be pretty extreme in the car. It is also very difficult to manage. When parents come to Dr. Jacob Boney, owner and clinical director of Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services, for help, he often hears some variations of:
“Dr. Jacob, what can I do when I’m driving or when I’m riding in the passenger seat and my children start to throw tantrums and start to hit each other? Or start to unbuckle their seatbelts or try to destroy the car? What do I do if my kid tries to jump out of the car?”
Obviously, the name of the game here is prevention. When you are unable to directly manage behavior in the car, you want to try and prevent any issues as much as possible. Managing is much less effective. Prevention is always easier than crisis management. So, it’s important to invest as much effort as possible into preventing the behavioral issues.
The first step is to think about what the triggers are for these behaviors most of the time. Is it siblings that sit too close together. Is it loud noises in the car? Is it arguing? Does it happen coming from or going to a particular location? When we figure out the triggers, we can address and try to manage them so that the naughty behavior becomes unnecessary, unneeded and, basically, useless to engage in.
One of the best prevention strategies possible is distracting the child. Switch the focus to something else. We want car rides to be as pleasurable, relaxing, stress-free and demand-free as possible, because if they are that, there won’t be as much of a need to engage in those undesirable behaviors in the car. The best place to start is to think in terms of the senses and what stimulates and engages your child.
There is a concept called learning channels, which basically deals with the forms of input and output that children seek when they are learning. Observe your child to see which channel your child prefers. It may be kinesthetic, where the child learns through physically touching and doing. Or it might be visual or auditory. What is important is to recognize and make use of the one that gets the best response from your child. For example, try using the radio or headphones with a child who seeks auditory inputs. Being distracted in this way decreases the chances of less desirable behavior.
To keep the car rides as relaxing as possible, postpone any discussions about undesirable behavior, poor choices that the child has recently made or chores that need to done when the child gets home. Don’t risk triggering a blow-up or explosion. Keep all arguments and tense discussions out of the car. Model pleasant, calm interaction between partners to keep your child feeling comfortable and safe.
Ignore simply annoying or minor behavior while in the car. Only prompt what you can immediately consequence. If you cannot enforce something right there and then, it is useless trying to address it. Better to try and redirect the behavior to something more appropriate. Instead of directing attention to the one misbehaving, if possible, attend to a sibling who is demonstrating good behavior and let the one acting out know that attention comes from good behavior rather than bad.
Make sure the child understands what you expect behavior-wise and why it is important. Do not assume that they should just know. Be especially attuned to good behavior and use every opportunity to praise it. Reinforce with access to their favorite rewards.
Recommendations for Extreme Behavior
- Unbuckling seat belt – this can be very dangerous and lead to someone getting hurt. Too much risk to ignore. Parents should stop the car and re-buckle. Research and get a prevention/barrier device to keep the child from being able to unbuckle the seat belt. Check especialneed.com for a wide range of options.
- Aggression – when a child hits, kicks or throws things in the car it can be dangerous to other siblings and adults. Violently kicking the back of the driver’s seat can be distracting enough to cause an accident. This is also something that should not be ignored in the car. There are barriers that can be placed in front of or around children to keep hands and feet to themselves and can also be found at especialneed.com or a variety of other places. Once behavior improves, this can be phased out.
Start small with short rides to places the child likes and work up to longer rides with multiple stops. In the beginning, try to start the ride with a pleasurable stop and end with one, also. If that isn’t possible, make the favorite stop at the very end so that the child has something to look forward to. By using prevention strategies and modeling relaxing and light, fun energy, you will be able to go a long way in developing good behavior for your child in the car.
Utilizing evidence based practices and the scientific principles of Applied Behavior Analysis, the Scottsdale Pediatric Behavioral Services team provides assessment, treatment and consultation for a wide range of behavioral issues. We work with a variety of children, families, schools, hospitals, mental health agencies and local community organizations to provide these services. If you have any questions about ways to improve your child’s behavior in the car or would like more information about any of the services offered by our team, please feel free to contact us by phone at 480.410.4040, email us at [email protected], or click here for our convenient online form.