Finding Sanity During Family Car Trips

5 Tips for Peace in the Back Seat


“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. The real-life temptation is simply to equip each child with a glowing device full of their favorite movies or games, and communicate the message… when it’s hard to get along, we just turn to screens to solve the problem. So let’s look at it differently, because a helpful insight for car rides or any other difficult parenting situation is: Every challenge holds a golden opportunity!

The challenge of car rides together is a great opportunity for connection, teamwork, and creative problem-solving.

Here are some practical, simple ideas:

1.) Model unselfishness

Much of our impatience in the car is driven by the fact that parents 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’re just 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 with the ideas below.

2) Validate your child’s stress

Children are 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.

Children cope with the stress of car rides by trying to control the situation (i.e. by picking fights), or override the stimulation (i.e. by simply getting louder than their siblings). This can be infuriating for adults who think kids are intentionally causing trouble. The truth is they are probably 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!  You can meet that need first, and you’ll greatly diminish the stress.

  • 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!
  • Strategically timed chewy or crunchy snacks or chewing gum can calm everyone’s bodies by working the mouth muscles when bigger movement isn’t possible.

3) Problem-solve as a family

Instead of exasperating your kids by dispensing your sage wisdom in a lecture format about car rides, try questions and discussion instead. “How do we want our car ride to go?” “When it goes better, what does each of us do that is helpful?” “How could we work as a team to have car rides go the way we’d like, so everyone enjoys the vacation more?”

Effective strategies will vary greatly for each family, but here are some helpful idea starters:

  • Plan a list of fun activities to try:
    • Take 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.
    • Find a download, book or deck of cards of different activities or games specifically for car rides.
    • Check out audiobooks from the library, or kids’ podcasts for some engaging storytelling.
    • Share your ideas below of what has worked in your family.   
  • 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.
  • Develop a plan to either compromise on music, or select some that the whole family will like.
  • Each child can plan ahead and pack a little bag with favorite items for the car – small toys, books, markers, art tablet, etc.

When brainstorming a long car ride to the East Coast with our kids, our son Noah got the inspiration to design, and with some help, build an art desk for the trip. (Probably the start of his engineering career!) It not only led to some wonderful creativity in the car, but the facilitation we provided communicated, “You are responsible for your activities and behavior in the car, and you are capable of coming up with some great ideas.”

4) Affirm and encourage before arguments begin

It’s easy to zone out when we finally smash the last suitcase into the back of the van, herd all the kids into their seats and head out, forgetting to notice that the first 50 miles (well maybe 5 miles) were actually quite peaceful! Make a mental note to affirm kids before the conflict or whining starts, and include some 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.”

You can even use some of your meal breaks to specifically highlight whatever has gone well in the last few hours, and the natural positive results of that helpful behavior.

5) Look for opportunities to bless others

When children get a chance to serve others they feel so much better about themselves, whether it’s by drawing a picture for a waitress, buying a special treat for whoever’s driving, calling a grandparent to chat, or taking a turn affirming another family member. These experiences can reduce the negative emotions and stress that often spark conflict and whining, as they set a positive, encouraging tone for any trip.

These ideas are rooted in the belief that if we let go of seeing car rides as a necessary evil, they can begin to add to the vacation’s connection and fun, and be a great learning opportunity for our kids. Give it a try – and enjoy the trip!

My Response:

  1. What has been my attitude about car rides with my kids? How has that impacted our trips?
  2. How could we problem-solve this challenge as a family? (Make a plan, or set a family meeting date now.)

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