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My Kids Won’t Stop Fighting in the Car. What Can I Do?

By Ginny Osewalt

Help! My kids won’t stop fighting in the car! What can I do?

Ginny Osewalt

Special Education Teacher

Whether you’re making a quick run to the supermarket or taking a road trip to Disney World, sibling wars and backseat brawls can be just around the corner. Learning and attention issues can make car time challenging. If ADHD is involved and physical proximity can’t be avoided, your vehicle can become a combat zone. Fortunately, with a little advance planning, you can stop many of these battles before they start.

Set boundaries.

Restlessness, the intrusion of sensory-seeking siblings and the inability to ignore certain sounds or other stimuli can lead to antagonism and territorial squabbles in the backseat. Define each child’s personal space by using a strip of masking tape or an old blanket. Explain that prized possessions and flailing body parts should kept within each child’s side of the dividing line.

Bring snacks.

Pack a bag full of simple snacks and dole them out when your inner voice tells you that backseat tensions are rising. Try to catch this early, or else you run the risk of rewarding bad behavior. Snacks that provide calming sensory input include chewy foods like raisins and beef jerky and crunchy foods like carrot sticks and pretzels. Avoid sugar, which can get kids riled up.

Buy some putty.

Kids love squishing and molding putty into crazy shapes. Occupational therapists use a type of putty called Theraputty for hand exercises that are designed to improve fine motor skills. It’s also great for stress relief and can be helpful when kids are upset, need to concentrate or have the urge to fidget.

Theraputty comes in a variety of resistance levels and is color-coded to indicate how soft or firm it is. The green putty has just the right consistency for kids. You can buy Theraputty in lots of online stores.

Pack library books.

Routinely visit the public library and keep a fresh and interesting supply of books and magazines available in the car for reading. Libraries also offer audiobooks, which are great for kids with reading issues. Take some earbuds so your child has the option of listening by himself.

Audiobooks can also entertain the entire family. If possible, store all reading materials in a see-through plastic beach tote to help catch your child’s interest.

Play travel games.

Many games are available in portable or magnetic versions—including my personal favorite, Connect Four. They’re easy to pass back and forth without spilling the pieces all over the place.

Try to keep car games simple because complexity can increase frustration levels. You can also help your kids release some energy at rest stops by bringing along a Frisbee or jump rope.

Allow some screen time.

Intervals of screen time can do wonders when peace and quiet are desperately needed. Full-length movies watched on a portable DVD player can save everyone’s sanity. Handheld games, e-readers, tablets and smartphones have a similar effect.

If your child has reading issues and is a member of Bookshare, the Read2Go app makes it easy to simultaneously hear the words in an e-book while looking at those words on the screen.

Give unexpected rewards.

If one of your children has ADHD, you probably know that rewarding good behavior can go a long way. If your kids have been nice to each other and have kept their bickering to an absolute minimum, consider surprising them with an impromptu stop for ice cream or a slice of pizza. This type of positive reinforcement, when used correctly, can be very effective in increasing the chances your children will repeat these kinds of behaviors.

Pull over.

Avoid becoming an audience for your kids when they fight or having your attention become the target they’re competing for. Ignore squabbling as much as you can.

But should conflicts go beyond that point, calmly pull off the road. Turn off your engine. Limit your comments to “I’ll just wait” or “I’ll drive when it’s safe.” Let your silence send a message. Take a deep breath. Put on some lip balm. Reorganize your wallet. Tell your kids again that you’ll drive when it’s safe.

You may need to wait a while and repeat this line a few times. Eventually, your kids will get a strong and clear message about what you consider to be acceptable behavior in the car.

About the Author

Portrait of Ginny Osewalt

Ginny Osewalt

Ginny Osewalt is a public school teacher in New Jersey, where she is certified both in elementary education and in special education.

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