Struggling with convincing your child to get—and stay—in a car seat? Learn how to handle a car seat tantrum effectively with these tips.
I felt stuck. My three-year-old son refused to go into his car seat and didn’t want to go home.
As an infant and toddler, I could always maneuver him into his seat. Now though, he was too big, strong enough to push back. If he didn’t cooperate, there would be no way for us to go home.
I felt so vulnerable, unable to do anything unless he was willing to comply.
I wasn’t alone in my frustration, either. SSBE reader Lori emailed about her child’s refusal to sit in the car seat and the tantrums she’d throw. Her child felt restrained and complained about the tight fit. She even knew how to get out of the straps by moving the clips down.
Lori often had to pull over to put her child back in the seat and readjust the straps. She tried everything, from sticker rewards to reasoning with her daughter, but nothing was working.
How to handle a car seat tantrum
Dealing with a child who hates the car seat isn’t one of those things you can ignore or walk away from. It’s a safety issue, after all. Unless your child cooperates, it’d be pretty hard to leave or reach your destination.
And it’s also frustrating—I’ve lost my temper more than once trying to get my child into a car seat he refused to sit in. It doesn’t help that we need to get somewhere—home, school, an event—and we’re held up because they either don’t want to get in or find a way to get themselves out.
As in Lori’s example, rewards hardly work, at least for the long run. Besides, we want to take advantage of the lessons these teachable moments can offer, as frustrating as they may be. We want our kids to make good decisions, learn better communication skills, and be self-motivated.
So, what can we do when our kids refuse to sit in their car seats? These are the tips that worked for me:
1. Adjust the car seat
Before we get into talking to our kids, let’s start with a simple problem to solve: the car seat.
First, make sure the car seat is comfortable. Your child could have a valid reason to say it’s tight and uncomfortable—it just might be!
I don’t know about you, but it’s so easy for me to forget how quickly our kids grow. Sometimes I won’t realize my kids need a new pair of shoes until they complain about their toes.
The same is true for the car seat, especially since we don’t adjust the straps too often.
Take a look at how your child is sitting in the seat and see if you need to adjust the straps higher. She may have outgrown its current setting. Look at how the straps sit against her body—are they chafing or rubbing her neck or thighs?
You might even check if she needs to upgrade to a different car seat. Maybe she outgrew the convertible car seat and is ready for a booster seat, or she’s too heavy or tall for her current seat and needs another one that accommodates her size.
And finally, make sure you’re fastening her tight. If she can slip the clip up and down, the straps may not be tight enough.
2. Give her something to hold
I’m not a fan of distraction, but sometimes giving your child something to hold can be all she needs to stop unfastening the clip and convince her to sit inside. Bring a stuffed animal that always stays in the car so looks forward to sitting in her seat.
Keep in mind that anything you give her can always fall during the ride. This can make her upset because she can’t reach and pick the item up.
If you plan to give her something to hold, explain that she needs to hold onto it tight. If it falls, she’ll have to wait until you’re at your destination before you can get it for her.
3. Show empathy
One of the most effective ways to diffuse a car seat tantrum is by showing empathy.
Understandably, it’s also one of the most difficult for us to do. We need to get somewhere and are in a time crunch. We’re sick and tired of yet another tantrum, especially when it feels like we’ve tried everything.
But it’s actually in these moments that kids need us to show empathy toward their feelings. She needs you to feel acknowledged and heard, not bossed around. Show that you understand her frustration, and that you would feel the same way if you were in her shoes.
Then, avoid “fighting words” by bringing her on your team and making the two of you on the same side.
You might say, “Those straps are uncomfortable again, aren’t they? I can see why you’re upset. Gosh I’d hate to sit in the car for the ride home with uncomfortable straps. What do you think we can do? What if we try to tighten it this way? Do you think that might work?”
Or you could say, “Thanks for letting me know these car straps make you feel restrained. I’ll look into adjusting it so it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable for you. I wouldn’t want to sit here either if my car seat was uncomfortable.”
Rather than telling her what to do, getting frustrated or making her the problem, bring her on board and work together to solve the same problem. She’ll be more willing to comply with less tension between the two of you.
4. Offer choices
Giving your child choices can work in high-tension situations. Kids feel powerless when they need to abide by rules of the adult world, rules they may not understand or don’t want to follow all the time.
But choices give your child an opportunity to voice her opinion. As with empathy, she’ll also feel like she’s part of your team rather than an adversary, and she’ll likely follow directions and feel more invested in it when she’s the one who made a choice.
The most important part about choices? They both have to be options you can deal with if she chooses either one. You wouldn’t say, “Would you like to get in the car seat, or to stay here?” because more than likely she’ll choose to stay put—something you’d rather not do.
Instead you could say, “We need to get in the car. Would you like me to carry you in, or get in yourself?” or “We need to stay in our seats. Would you rather hold your lovey, or snack on these crackers?” Either choice your daughter makes works for you.
5. Show that “you’ve got this”
Take a step back and think about what’s happening. Yes, your child is throwing a wicked tantrum, you’re late, and you feel tired from a long day at work. You’re just not in the mood for this.
But beyond all that, it’s also just a tantrum. Yes, in that moment, it’s the most frustrating part of your day, but in the bigger picture, it’s a few minutes coming home later than usual. So many other things are worse.
Why do you need to realize how “small” this problem is? Because no matter how frantic or hectic you feel, it’s important to show your child that you’ve got this.
As hard as it is, kids shouldn’t see us unnerved by their behavior. It frightens them to think their actions can bring out the worst in us. That even their parents can’t stand up to the terrible feelings a tantrum can bring.
Instead, show that you can handle this tantrum, that nothing she throws at you will rattle your nerves (even if it does!). You can almost “feel sorry” for her and her frustration, just as you’d feel sorry for another person’s bad day.
Don’t make your child’s plight your problem. So instead of, “Get in your car seat or else!” you could say, “That car seat is bothering you again, isn’t it? I’m sorry that’s happening, but you’ll need to wear it on the ride home.”
After my son threw that infamous car seat tantrum and I couldn’t strap him down, I knew I had been going about it the wrong way. Sure, I had been able to strap him in against his will and was on my way, but I wasn’t respecting his feelings or bringing him on board my team.
Now I realize that it’s far more effective to show empathy for our kids’ complaints, even if they seem petty to us. We need to show we’ve got this under control, no matter how frustrating it can feel inside.
Car seat tantrums can be a challenge for both parent and child, but with the right communication, empathy and planning, you’ll no longer find yourself pulling over three times to re-adjust the car seat.
How to finally stop losing your temper with your child
Exhausted and feeling guilty from constantly losing your temper with your child? Even if it seems like you’ve tried just about everything, you CAN stop losing your temper… if you start from the inside out and change from within.
In my PDF, How to Finally Stop Losing Your Temper, I’ll show you how to reflect on who you’re being, your habits and triggers, and what you can do when you feel that rush of anger rising within you. Join my newsletter and download your PDF below—at no cost to you:
Get more tips:
- Feel Like a Stressed Mom? How to Start Enjoying Parenthood
- Your Cheat Sheet Guide to Handling Tantrums
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
- The “How Do You Do It” Working Moms Guide
- Consistent Rules or Pick Your Battles?
Tell me in the comments: What are your best tips on handling a car seat tantrum?