Backseat brawls – How to handle the kids in the car

photo by Will Hale via Flickr

It was pouring down rain and I could hardly see. The windshield wipers barely kept up with the sheets of heavy rain. The only thing I saw was the flashing hazard lights of the car in front of me. People were pulling over.

I plowed through. Wheel gripped tightly, eyes squinted, I plowed through…

because the two kids in the back seat were about to tear each other’s face off. I think they were collaborating with each other to see how much they could annoy me.

There wasn’t a storm in the world that was going to delay me getting home and getting out of the Hell hole that was my vehicle. The kids might be possessed.


There are few times as a parent when you feel as trapped as you do when in the car with the kids when they are freaking out, either screaming at each other, screaming at you, or reaching new heights of hyperactivity and decible levels not yet recorded on Earth.

“GIMME THAT” “I dropped my book.” “SHE’S TOUCHING MY FOOT!” “I hate this song.” “Turn it up!” “Turn it down.” “But you said….”

Let’s try to fix this…

1. Be a leader – song leader, discussion leader, game leader. You prepare the activity, you begin the conversation. START EARLY. I’m pretty sure this is where “I spy” started…Forget about what you might want to listen to on the radio because when things go sour, you’re not going to be able to listen anyway.

2. Be prepared – Books, magazines, coloring books, treats for the longer rides. Have the kids choose before you even leave the driveway (or maybe even the house, really). Having something to do is huge. Not only to prevent problems, but to have something to redirect the attention if things start to go poorly.

3. Establish rules for “taking turns” – If you have two kids, they are always, ALWAYS, going to want what each other has. Establish a rule about how long a game can be played, a book can be read, or a toy can be held. Do this at the beginning and not as a response to misbehavior. Use the clock on the dash as a timer. Certain predictable landmarks can also be used as an exchange time (e.g., “you can play with that until we get to the bank on the corner, then you need to switch with your sister”).

Reward successful turn taking with special treats, high fives or access to more preferred activities. 

If one of the kids does not want to give up the activity he has, pay attention to the kid who is doing the right thing and waiting for the trade. Do this quickly. Optimally, before the fussing starts (e.g., “John, I know you want that book, but thank you for hanging in there. You will have your first choice of what you want next time. Is there something else you want to do? What do you want to listen to on the radio while your sister calms down?”).

Once the “sister” gives up the preferred activity, make sure you praise that decision, but inform her she will have limited time with that next time because she did not follow the directions to trade at the time she was supposed to (John now gets it for 2 turns instead of the one because he hung in there).

4. Reinforce frequently and specifically – This is the most important. We tend to take quiet rides for granted. We expect it. Don’t get caught in this trap.

Take every opportunity to reinforce and praise good car behavior.

“You guys are doing such a nice job back there…what song do you want to hear?”

“High five at the next red light because you guys have been so nice back there”

When things get ugly…

Ask your kid questions they are likely to answer. Something weird, like, “hey, when is Henry’s birthday? Is he going to have a Handy Manny party or is he going to have a football party this year? Do you remember last year’s party?…”

Pay attention to the quiet(er) one. Resist the temptation to turn UP the radio, but turn it down instead. Resist the temptation to yell, and speak quietly. Resist the temptation to threaten punishment…you’re past that. Wait until you see something they think will be interesting and start talking about it, “HEY, look at that firetruck…sweet! What kind is that?”

Are we there yet?

Do you have any other ideas or things that have worked? Please comment below!

1 thought on “Backseat brawls – How to handle the kids in the car

  1. Pingback: I yelled at my kids…and IT WORKED! |

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