On the Road Again: Toddler Tantrums in the Car
I’ve been reading your column for years and really appreciate the practical advice you (and your readers!) have given. I am now at my wits end in regards to my 2 year old’s tantrums in the car. Here’s some background:
Almost 1 year ago, we moved from one part of town to another. My commute to and from work went from 5 minutes one way to 35 minutes one way (without major traffic). I should probably mention that I live in Los Angeles, so there’s ALWAYS traffic. My 2 year old shares my commute since her daycare center is close to my work. Not only do we LOVE her daycare, but this also allows us to use the carpool lane.
However, even with carpool, we are unable to make it home/work without a meltdown. We can usually get half way before it starts, but it’s become so disruptive, I nearly got into an accident the other day. We will be doing this commute almost every weekday for the next 3 years, so odds are if this continues, I WILL get into an accident.
Here’s an idea a typical drive home: When I pick her up from daycare, I have a small snack ready for her to munch on and a toy or two within her reach. This will keep her occupied for about 15 minutes. When she is done with something, she will throw it on the floor and out of reach. She will ask for help which then I tell her “Mommy cannot help you right now because Mommy is driving”. She then starts to whine, whimper, cry and then finally scream the rest of the way home.
“Do you want to listen to music?”
(and if I turn music on anyway she screams louder)
“Do you want to sing a song with me?”
(and if I sing anyway she screams louder)
“Can you tell me the names of your friends at school?”
You get the idea. I’ve tried all sorts of toys to try and hold her attention, but they all end up frustrating her and tossed to the car floor. Can you recommend any strategies, toys, anything I can try to make our commute less stressful?
Ignore. IgnoreIgnoreIgnore. Then ignore some more.
Easier said than done, AMY, I’m sure your nerves and eardrums are saying, but it’s true. The best, most surefire strategy for dealing with toddler tantrums — in the car, at home, wherever — is to ignore the snot out of ’em. Think about it: If she were pitching this level of fit in the middle of a store or a restaurant, it’s doubtful you’d even try offering multiple distractions or questions before simply picking her up and SILENTLY removing her from the situation. Most of the time, trying to logic/distract/engage with a tantrumming toddler just makes it worse, and the car scenario is no different.
Your attention belongs on the road, not on her. She is safe and secure and in no danger of injuring herself from whining/screaming (and it’s not like there’s a newborn next to her in danger of getting hurt by fists or thrown objects). Your primary responsibility is to focus on the road, so go ahead and absolve yourself of the responsibility to keep her happy in the car. She’s FINE. She’s unhappy but really, she’s fine.
So here’s what I would do: If she’s genuinely hungry after daycare and hasn’t snacked in awhile, I’d modify whatever you bring to something she can eat quickly before you get on the road. Then remove the baggie/cup/container or whatever. I’d also consider NOT having small toys for her to drop or throw in the first place. (You might also want to remove her shoes or anything else she can throw.) It might seem counter-intuitive to not provide distractions, but since the tantrums seem consistently triggered by something getting dropped or thrown (and then her realizing that Mommy isn’t at her beck and call and is saying “NO” to her), I wonder what would happen if you take those “somethings” away. The toys/distractions clearly aren’t doing their job, and their presence might be part of the problem in the first place.
Instead, you can try the car games BEFORE the fit starts (playing iSpy is good, to keep her attention out the window), but DROP IT at the first sign of resistance. She’s probably tired and might just be in no mood for songs/games/talking, so respect that and again, focus on the ROAD instead of keeping her engaged. She can look out the window or talk to you or listen to music. That’s the extent of in-car entertainment that millions of kids have survived long car trips with.
Once a tantrum starts, your attention on her is DONE. Turn up your music to drown her out and do your best to ignore her. If you absolutely can’t, pull over but still no attention. Then silently get back on the road once you’re calm and collected. And while you’re driving, no turning your head or pleading or retrieving lost objects. You’re not being mean or cruel because your safety (and the safety of other drivers) is at high stakes right at that moment, much higher than a 2 year old acting like an irrational 2 year old for 15/20 minutes.
I THINK, with time and a consistent zero attention approach, she’ll learn that the tantrums just aren’t worth it. Right now she’s got you trapped in nice little power struggle for negative attention, and she’ll keep doing it until the attention goes away. And is replaced with POSITIVE attention. Tons of praise whenever she is quiet and sitting nicely in her seat. What a big good girl you are, looking out the window at all the cars! I see a red one! Go easy on the demands and questions but heavy on the praise whenever you can. This is will make the shift to ZERO ATTENTION once she starts screaming more noticeable to her, and clue her in that her fits aren’t getting her anywhere.
And of course, as a last resort, there’s TV. I hate to recommend that for a 2 year old but hey, I live in the real world too. If you do decide that your nerves can’t handle the screaming and a hardcore IGNORE approach to the tantrums doesn’t seem to bring any improvement after a week or two, consider getting some kind of screen entertainment. I would NOT recommend handing her a phone or iPad, though, since that’ll just be another thing to drop and OMG STURM UND DRANG will commence. Instead, get something that attached to the seat in front of her, and make sure whatever DVD you use will last the majority of the trip and doesn’t require any input/attention from you.
Published October 2, 2015. Last updated July 16, 2017.