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How to deal with car tantrums

I was recently speaking with a friend who is car shopping. He was explaining that he and his wife could not get the car they wanted and could afford because it did not have the option of an in-car-theater for the kids. It turns out that his kids have always insisted on full-immersion entertainment for any trip longer than about 15 minutes, and if it was not available, they would make being in the car unbearable.

Unfortunately, this situation seems to be more and more common. There was a time when I had to deal with a 5 year old with the same behavior. Leah was spoiled in general, and she knew that “no” simply meant it was time for a tantrum. Car rides with her were excruciating. If she didn’t like the song on the radio, she would scream until the station was changed to something she liked. If there wasn’t something she liked on the radio, she would insist on a particular song on a CD. Eventually, the situation reached the point where I had to tell her mother that I would no longer tolerate her in my car unless something was done about her behavior. We had tried everything we could think of, everything we had read about, and everything our friends suggested. Finally, at the end of our ropes, we worked out a solution that worked very well, and very quickly. Here’s our method:

Before a fairly long car trip (it was about an hour drive) to an amusement park we explained to her (yet again) that she needed to select books, crayons, etc, and that she would have to entertain herself quietly for the duration of the trip. We once again indicated that we would not put up with her normal tantrums during the drive, and that there would be serious repercussions if there were tantrums. It is important to note that this was a trip that she had been looking forward to for a while, and it was important to her. We made sure that she was sitting on the passenger side of the car (this is important).

About 15 minutes into the drive – just after we got onto the highway – she started a tantrum. I immediately pulled over, got out of the car, went around to her door, and got her out of the car. I explained to her that her behavior was not acceptable in the car, and that we would stand there at the side of the road until she was capable of behaving. I also pointed out that for every minute of tantrum, there would be a minute less at the park. (It is important to have the child on the passenger side so that the car is between the kid and the highway). She proceed to have a fall down kicking and screaming tantrum. If the child is old enough, you can get back in the car, and let them have the tantrum alone, but for a young one, you have to stay and watch. Whatever you do, DON’T react. Let the tantrum run it’s course without getting angry, giving in, or otherwise indicating anything. When the tantrum finally winds down, let the kid get back into the car (or help them in if that is what you normally do). Don’t apologize, explain, or do anything out of the ordinary. You are just getting into the car to continue your trip. Once you are back in the car, don’t cave in to whatever the tantrum was trying to get.

The first time you do this, the child will be astonished, unbelieving, and may even be so stunned that the tantrum simply stops. At some point, you will end up at the side of the road or in a parking lot or rest area with a child absolutely spazzing out next your car. People will stare. Some may even come over to make sure things are OK. If that happens, simply tell them “Oh, Leah needed to have a tantrum, and this is how we let her have them”. It will help if Leah hears you say this – especially if you can make it sound like its something Leah should be ashamed of (not something that YOU should be ashamed of).

Chances are good you’ll have to repeat this a few times. Expect a tantrum to occur the first time the weather is really crappy (“they would NEVER make me get out of the car in the rain”). Simply be prepared. Have a set or two of spare clothes, and when you get to your destination (not after the kid gets soaked because of their tantrum) let them change into dry clothes. If you change them as soon as their first tantrum is over, they’ll know that all they have to do is use up your reserve of dry clothes, and they’ll be in charge again.

Be prepared to be late to a few events. If the kid knows that you have to be someplace at a given time, they “know” that you won’t stop. Stop anyway. Have your cell phone, and call ahead so that wherever you are going knows you’re running late. Or start out early and allow time for the tantrum stop.

In essence, what you are doing is making the kid know that YOU are in charge, not them. It only took three or four stops for Leah to get the message. In a matter of a couple of weeks, car trips changed from absolute torture to at least tolerable. Sure, kids will still bicker and do all the normal kid stuff. That is to be expected. But at least we had turned Leah down to “normal kid stuff”.


4 Responses

  1. Have you ever read Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay? This is EXACTLY the approach they would recommend.

    Short story: when Punkin’ Pie was, oh, I don’t know, about six, we were gathered for a birthday celebration for one of her grandparent’s birthday at the Olive Garden. We had just finished ordering when she started doing something unacceptable (I don’t know what it was; that detail is inconsequential at the moment) and I told her that if she couldn’t stop, she would be removed from the restaurant. She called what she thought was my bluff and did the thing again. I turned to her dad and calmly asked him to ask the waiter to box Punkin’s and my meals, that we would be in the car. The rest of the family was not to rush – we’d wait for them to finish their meals – AND the cake AND the present opening – we’d be fine.

    Punkin’ and I were in the car for over an hour. She screamed, she cried, she negotiated, she apologized, but she sat in that car with (a silent) me without eating her dinner.

    The important thing is to know that parents are going to follow through, calmly and firmly, on the things they say they’ll do. My girls know this – there’s never been another restaurant incident since then.

  2. Bravo. If more parents would maintain Spinal integrity when their kids are young, their kids would be a lot easier to deal with when they are older…..

    I must have missed that book – the car event was about 10 years ago. Leah’s mom and I did not stay together, and Leah’s behavior regressed to its old levels. Whne she was 13, she almost succeeded in a suicide attempt. Sometimes the kids NEED (for real) someone to teach them what is OK….

  3. Hi,
    I initially came to your blog to comment on an post about math, but this post fascinated me. What a great solution!
    I am a former “tantrum child” (raised on Lawn Giland in the sixties – didn’t have much of a choice) and hated myself even as I “tantrummed.” I have always regretted that my parents had no strategy, and I almost believed they got what they deserved.
    The thing is, I deserved better. A six year old needs some real guidance, and had I gotten it, I would have been spared embarrassing myself and living with that embarrassment for years.
    Kids want to learn, and your suggestions give them a chance to learn by inspecting what they are doing because they are in control of their own consequences and not those of others.
    Learning that way is a lot better than learning by lecturing, cajoling, pleading, etc.
    I hope some of your readers try out your strategy (but seldom need to).



  4. Brian, thanks a lot for the view from the other side. I don’t know how many kids there are with problems like this, but it seems that many of them end up learning what acceptable behavior is when they enter school – or at least they learn what is acceptable at school – they may still be terrors at home.
    I know that many of the kids that suffer through this type of upbringing do suffer long term consequences because of it. In the case of Leah, I honestly think that her suicide attempt was, in part, a reaction to finally being told “no” about something, and not knowing how to deal with it. 13 is kind of late to be the first time someone says no, and actually means it. I have to wonder how many of the screwed up kids, teens, and adults are the result of too much “freedom” when they are little.

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