Children's Hospital Colorado

How to Drive Safely when Your Kids Are Misbehaving

A girl wearing a pink winter coat, and her brown hair in a ponytail, sits in the back seat while a man in a brown coat drives the car.

Most drivers have heard the key messages about what not to do when behind the wheel, like driving drunk and texting while driving. Not everyone complies, but still the messaging is loud and clear: just don’t do it.

There is, though, another type of distracted driving whose rules are less clear: how to deal with misbehaving kids while you’re driving.

“When you hear about distracted driving, you hear about cell phones and the advice is to put the phone in the trunk,” says Melissa Buchholz, PsyD, clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Child Health Clinic. “But when it comes to kids as the distraction, there’s no easy solution. It’s not like you can put your kids in the trunk.”

A mother of three young kids herself, Dr. Buchholz knows how parents feel. And despite the lack of clarity on solutions, she says that it really boils down to employing good parenting practices —starting with positive reinforcement and prevention.

Below she provides 10 tips on how to manage children who are misbehaving while you drive.

  1. Talk to your kids. When your kids are old enough to have a discussion with you, talk to them about the car ride. Say things like, “Driving requires a lot of concentration,” and “mommy [or daddy] needs to be a safe driver.” Set up ground rules ahead of time, such as establishing the car as a “no yelling” and “no throwing” zone. If the kids break the rules, enforce consequences, like having TV privileges or other privileges taken away.
  2. Have a strategy to keep them occupied for the duration of the trip. Consider how long your kids will be in the car, and then try to set up an environment that’s conducive to good behavior. If it’s a shorter car ride, have a playlist of sing-along songs, or encourage them to play “I Spy” or the license-plate game. If it’s a longer road trip, try to have another adult with you to attend to the kids from the back seat. Audio books are also an effective way to keep kids occupied during long car rides. (Safe driving experts at Children’s Colorado also point out that if children are properly restrained in their car seats, there is less chance of them misbehaving.)
  3. Reinforce natural consequences. Often a child will drop something in the car and ask the driving parent to pick it up for them. Many parents will instinctively reach around the seat to pick it up. “It’s just as bad,” Dr. Buchholz says. “You might as well be sending a text message.” Instead, if a child throws or drops something, tell them they will have to wait until the car ride ends before they get it back. This, says Dr. Buchholz, is called a natural consequence. Set this expectation ahead of time. Before you start driving, say something like, “If you drop your toy while mom is driving, you won’t be able to get it back until the car ride is over.” Be sure to stick to that rule.
  4. Anticipate when misbehavior is most likely to occur. When kids are hungry or stressed, they are more likely to react in a negative way. If at all possible, try to take care of those things before you get in the car. Consider keeping healthy, dry snacks such as almonds in the car for emergencies. Or have soothing music to calm moods when they escalate.
  5. Sometimes you have to ignore them. “As long as they’re not hurting each other, and as long as they’re safe, sometimes you just have to take a deep breath and ignore them.” Dr. Buchholz recommends that parents have their own techniques for calming themselves to make it easier to withstand distracting kids.
  6. Pull over. When kids are misbehaving in the car, it’s dangerous to try to discipline them while driving. Pull over, stop the car and tell them you will not continue driving until they resolve the problem. It might take more emotional energy to do this at first, but after a few incidences, kids could very well change their behavior because they know you are serious about stopping the car.
  7. Use rewards for children who are struggling. If you have a child who is struggling to control their behavior in the car, it’s OK to reward them for a short period of time. Say something like, “If we make it all the way home, then we get to have ___.” Use rewards that are meaningful to the child. Once the child shows consistent success at riding in the car, taper off the rewards – starting with every other car ride to just once in a while. After some time, you likely won’t need the rewards anymore.
  8. Speak calmly when you have to enforce consequences. When children misbehave to the point of having to enforce consequences, try not to react with the same negative energy they’re displaying. If you have to pull over, say something like, “You’re acting unsafe and it could cause me to get in an accident. When you calm down, we’ll make it home in a safe way.” Help kids refocus on the expectations you set before you started driving.
  9. Parents need their own ways to cope, too. Sometimes it’s difficult for parents to contain their anger or frustration in the car. If you feel your emotions rising, which is a type of distracted driving, try counting to ten, taking deep breaths, rolling your shoulders or turning on calming music. If things really escalate, remember that it’s OK to pull over and call a friend or family member to help calm you down. 

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