08/05/2013 05:36 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Make the Car Fighting Stop!


Whenever we go anywhere, my children, ages 5 and 7, begin to bicker the instant they get buckled in. How do I change their car behavior so I'm not angry and worn out by the time we arrive where we're going?

Little children are poorly designed when it comes to sitting still. They are built for movement -- running, jumping, fidgeting and squirming. The restrictions that come from being strapped in and stuck in a car are a terrible fit for kids. There are, however, things you can do to make the ride more enjoyable. Here's my advice:

• Ask yourself why their behavior makes sense. Complaining about their bickering is not going to solve anything. Instead, take a look at what they are getting out of their behavior. Human beings only do things to experience pleasure or avoid pain. Do they get lots of attention from you when they argue? (I call this "Mom TV.") Do they get to offload "pain" or stress from the day? Identify the payoff so you can deal with it proactively.

• Address the need that fuels the fighting. Once you've established a few possible payoffs for their quarreling, address those needs directly. If you suspect that one or the other has been feeling shortchanged on attention from you, try giving him an extra dose of mommy time before you hit the road. If you think their arguing is a result of pent up frustrations, have them do a wild wiggle dance before they get in the car. If they're bored, put a basket of toys in the back seat so they have something to do.

• Play car games. For those of us who grew up taking long, cross-country car trips (without the benefit of car video systems or ipads!) we learned to love games like Ghost, I Spy and Twenty Questions. Research a few car games and start making them part of your driving ritual. Children are hungry for the opportunity to have fun with their parents, and car games provide the chance to play with you in a stimulating way.

• Divert and distract. Create car rituals that occupy your children's minds so they're less inclined to fuss at one another. Invite your kids to solve riddles (you can find them online, or buy a riddle book and let your kids challenge you!) Telling jokes is also a fun way to change the mood in the car, as is singing songs with great gusto!

Make sure that when your children are being pleasant passengers, you let them know how much you appreciate it! Kids thrive on positive feedback, and like hearing us notice a specific effort they have made to please us. "I have to tell you guys what a nice time I've been having being your chauffeur today! I love hearing you sharing what you know about dinosaurs! I've actually learned a few things!"

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.