How to solve squabbling in the car

You're barely out of first gear and your children start acting up. We help one mum conquer junior road rage

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“My knuckles are white as I clench the steering wheel”

Marie, from South London, dreads car journeys with her children Poppy, 10 months, Tom, 2½ and Tess, 5.

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Marie says: “I’ll just have got round the corner when they start whining, then Tess and Tom start squabbling. Next they wake Poppy up and she starts wailing. By that stage I’m usually gritting my teeth and clenching the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles are white. I either shout at them or let them shovel down crisps just to get a few moments of peace.

“Every day on the school run, I’m stuck in traffic for 45 minutes each way. My husband is away for work a lot and in a month’s time I’ve got to do a three-hour drive by myself with the three children. I’m already having sleepless nights at the thought of it. 

“Two years ago I had a crash with Tess and Tom in the car when someone smashed into the back of our car. I can still see everything in slow motion and Tess’s dummy flying past my head. The crash shattered what little driving confidence I had. And the kids bickering in the back does nothing to help me conquer my fears. Please help!”

Our expert says

Michele Elliott is a mum of two and child psychologist. She’s also founder of Kidscape, the anti-bullying charity and author of 501 Ways To Be A Good Parent.

Michele has a 12-point plan for dealing with junior road wars in the back seat

1. Be an early bird

Running late stresses everyone out. The kids are half-asleep and cranky and you’re more hassled. Get up half-an-hour earlier to help get your act together.

2. Make it fun

Buy trays on beanbags for them to put on their laps. Treat them to crayons, colouring books and magnetic boards with shapes to make journeys fun. Play games like ‘Who can see something green?’ or, if you’re lucky, ‘Who can be quiet the longest?’

3. Keep them sweet with a treat

But only if they’re behaving well. It’s tempting to shut them up with sweets, but it’s giving out the wrong message. Make it clear. Be good before you get your goodies.

4. Butt out

Some rows are part of growing up. They may fizzle out so don’t jump in immediately every time or they’ll squabble just to get your attention. Save refereeing for those hair-pulling humdingers!

5. Offer praise

Praise your older child when he hands his little sister her favourite teddy or chats to her. It will dramatically improve his behaviour in the car – and out of it.

6. Let them reap rewards

Get a star chart and they can put a sticker on if they behave during a car journey. No star if they’ve squabbled. After two or three stars, give them a treat.

7. Swap niggles for giggles

Try a good old sing-a-long, but change the words. Instead of ‘The wheels of the bus go round and round’, sing: ‘We’re taking Daddy to the train, train, train.’ Add verses about them too. It might sound irritating to you but they’ll think it’s hilarious.

8. Get it on tape

It’s hard to concentrate when your little one is wailing: ‘Tell me a story, Mummy. Pleeeeease!’ Tape yourself reading their favourite stories. That’ll keep them happy in the back allowing you to concentrate.

9. Be ready for a snack attack

Take plenty of healthy snacks like carrot sticks and chopped grapes. Avoid junk food, such as crisps, especially if your kids suffer car sickness, as it’ll make them feel even more queasy. Make sure you’ve got plenty of water as dehydration can trigger tantrums. In toddlers, not you, of course!

10. Get their heads down

If your children still take naps, aim to set off an hour before their sleeptime, so they’ll nod off and give you a break. Have plenty of stops so they can go to the loo or let off steam with a run around.

11. Be prepared

Get ready the night before a journey. Have everyone’s clothes laid out, bags by the door and snacks ready in the fridge. Not only will this help avoid stress, you can also feel a smug domestic goddess glow!

12. Keep focused

You don’t need any more distractions than you already have. Don’t answer your mobile, even if it’s hands-free. If you have a special mirror to check them in the back, don’t look in it every few seconds.Michele says: “Even the most confident drivers are likely to lose their temper, or concentration, if they have crying children in the back. For a nervous driver, particularly one who has nasty memories of a crash, fear can just add to the relentless stress.

Michele’s advice to Marie…

“My advice is to put safety first. Don’t swing your head round because the kids are squabbling. Keep your eyes on the road until it is safe to pull over.

“Reduce the fear factor by giving yourself more time for the drive and preparing with military precision – not just the route, but also toilet breaks and ways to keep the children amused in the car. Don’t forget you have a captive audience in the back seat. Car journeys are a great way of talking to and getting to know your children. Try to stop dreading these drives and think of them instead as a chance to create happy memories which are a part of growing up.”

The result

Marie followed Michele’s plan for 4 weeks leading up to her long solo drive. Here’s how she got on.

“The kids really enjoy car journeys now”

“I instantly felt more positive when Michele said that car journeys are a chance to get to know your kids. First, on the way home from school, I started telling Tom and Tess about my day and they were eager to tell me their news. I began preparing snacks the night before, packing their bags and even sorting my clothes out. I woke them up half-an-hour earlier, too. Instead of struggling to buckle the kids in while they’re still eating toast, I now leave the house calmly.

“Preparing for my dreaded drive to the wedding, I drove to see a friend an hour away, then we did a two-hour drive.  Michele’s tactic to make up our own funny words to songs worked a treat. I also taped myself reading their favourite stories onto a cassette. That kept them quiet on the motorway while I kept my eyes on the road.

“By the day of the wedding, I felt ready. I planned the drive in stages and gave Tom and Tess activity books and stickers before we set off. They sat with beanbag trays on their laps and played happily. Regular stops along the way gave them a chance to play and meant I could mentally tick that leg of the journey off. When we arrived, I thought: “I’ve done it!

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“I’m much less stressed now I can get on with driving the car instead of them driving me insane!”

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