Finding Sanity During Family Car Trips


“Are we there yet?” “I have to go to the bathroom!” “I want a Happy Meal NOW!” “No, I want Taco Bell!!”

Ahh, the bliss of car-trip vacations. Whether our children are toddlers or teens, the stress of riding in the car together for extended periods can taint the whole vacation. Wouldn’t it be great if we could time-warp ourselves to our destinations? It’s appealing, but obviously not reality. A helpful “truth phrase” for car rides or any other difficult parenting situation is:

Within every challenge is embedded a golden opportunity!

The challenge of car rides together is a great opportunity for connection and teamwork. Here are some practical, simple ideas:

Model unselfishness

Much of our impatience in the car is driven by the fact that we sit up front, expecting peace and quiet, and leave the children to their own devices in the back. We get irritated when we can’t read the book, play that new smartphone app game, have the conversation, listen to the music, or enjoy the quiet that we want to. If we’re really honest about it, we gotta admit, we’re being selfish. For our kids to learn to respect our needs in the car, we must first pay good attention to theirs. It may mean that for some of the time a parent sits in back and orchestrates fun and positive interactions.

Validate how stressful this is for your child

Children are much more easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation than adults. They are accustomed to lots of body movement. Children (including teens) often feel “trapped” in the car with the whole family and the strong sensory stimulation that brings. Normal coping mechanisms of going to a quiet place or compensating by moving and wiggling just aren’t options in a car ride. So – children cope by trying to control the situation (i.e. by picking fights), or override the stimulation (i.e. by simply getting louder than their sibling). This can be infuriating for adults, because we think they are intentionally causing trouble. The truth is they are just trying to deal with their stress. Understanding this and shifting our thinking from “My child is naughty,” to “My child is needy,” is the first step. If you have an intense, sensitive or exceptionally active child, this is especially true!

Problem-solve as a family

Instead of exasperating your kids by dispensing your sage wisdom about car rides in a lecture format, try questions and discussion instead. “How do we want our car ride to go?” “How could we work as a team to accomplish that?” Effective strategies will vary greatly for each family, but here are some ideas other families have found helpful:

  • Since safety is a priority, decide as a family what the consequence will be if someone acts out in a way that distracts the driver.
  • Find a book or deck of cards of different activities or games specifically for car rides.
  • Check out books on CD from the library for some engaging storytelling.
  • Try taking turns telling your own stories, a few words or sentences at a time. Even young children can think of silly things to insert into the story “blanks”, which the adults then weave into the plot.
  • Before the trip, each child can pack a little bag with favorite items for the car – small toys, tablet, markers, headphones, etc.
  • When equipped with total trip miles and current odometer readings, older children can “do the math” and let younger children know, “How long yet?”
  • Chewy or crunchy snacks or chewing gum can calm the body by working the mouth muscles when bigger movement isn’t possible.
  • Use roadside rests with parks for vigorous exercise after your bathroom breaks. A game of either tag or Frisbee provides fun exercise and prepares everyone for the next period of forced inactivity. Five to ten extra minutes at each stop will be more than worth it!

(For more creative car-ride ideas, check out our Family Trips board on Pinterest.)

Look for opportunities to bless others

When children get a chance to serve others, they feel so much better about themselves. Whether it’s drawing a picture for a waitress, buying a special treat for whoever’s driving, calling a grandparent to chat, or taking a turn saying what I like about another family member, these experiences can set a positive tone to any trip.

We often quickly disappear into those leisure activities, and forget to notice that the first 50 miles (well maybe 5 miles) were actually quite peaceful! Affirm before the conflict or whining starts and include detail and emotion to strengthen the impact of the affirmation.

For tots: Use frequent, exuberant and emphatic praise – “Wow, you two have been doing an amazing job sharing the markers nicely back there!! I’m lovin’ the great drawings you’re making!”

For teens: Focus on their effort and the specific benefits of the peacefulness – “I can tell you two are really working at making this a nice trip for all of us. I really appreciate that, long car rides can be tough but you’ve been very respectful.”

Use meal breaks to specifically highlight whatever has gone well in the last few hours, and the natural positive results of that helpful behavior.

These are a few simple ideas. They are rooted in the belief that if we view the car ride as an opportunity rather than as a necessary evil, car rides can begin to be much better. Give it a try – and enjoy the trip!

Apply It Now:

  1. What has been your attitude about car rides with your family? How has that impacted your trip?
  2. How could you problem-solve this challenge as a family? Make a plan or set a family meeting date now.

Want help implementing these principles with your family? Check out our coaching options!

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