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 get into his car seat and go home from preschool.
As an infant, he was easy enough to maneuver into the car seat, crying or not, but as an older toddler, he was now strong enough to push me away. And without his cooperation, I couldn’t get him safely strapped in the back seat and head home.
I felt so vulnerable, unable to do anything unless he was willing to comply. No longer could I strap him in regardless of his mood—his outburst meant we were stuck in the school parking lot.
I’m certain I wasn’t alone in my frustration, either.
Your child might refuse to sit in the car seat, throwing tantrums for various reasons. She feels restrained and complains about the tight fit of the seat belts. She kicks and squirms as you try to loop her arms into the car-seat straps and buckle her in. Even if you finally get on the road, she still might know how to undo the buckles or move the chest clip down.
The result? You end up pulling over to put her back in the car seat and readjust the belt correctly—not exactly a convenient trip home. But despite everything you’ve tried, from stickers to reasoning, nothing is 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, you can’t leave or reach your destination.
You’re understandably frustrated, losing your temper trying to get her into the car seat she refuses to sit in. It doesn’t help that you need to get somewhere—home, school, an event—and get held up because she doesn’t want to get in, or finds a way to get herself out.
So, what can you do when she refuses to sit in the car seat and throws a fit? Take a look at these simple but effective tips:
1. Show empathy
One of the best ways to diffuse a car seat tantrum is to show empathy.
Understandably, it’s also one of the most difficult to do in these scenarios. You need to get somewhere by a certain time, or find yourself in a time crunch. You’re sick and tired of yet another meltdown, especially when it feels like you’ve tried everything.
But it’s actually in these moments that your child needs you to show empathy. She wants to feel acknowledged and heard, not bossed around. To know that you understand her frustration, and that you would feel the same if you were in her shoes.
To start, avoid “fighting words” by bringing her on your team, offering comfort, 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. I wouldn’t like to sit with those straps during the whole car ride home, either. 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 are tight. I’ll look into adjusting them so they don’t feel so uncomfortable for you. I wouldn’t want to sit for long periods of time 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 follow less tension between the two of you.
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2. Give your child something to hold
I’m not a fan of distraction, but sometimes giving your child something to hold can be all you need to convince him to finally sit in the car seat.
Bring a stuffed animal that stays in the car so he can look forward to sitting in the car seat. Offer a baggie of crackers to eat or picture books to read on the way home. A blanket to cover him or a special stuffed animal to hold.
Having something to hold can motivate him to at least get strapped in the car seat or stop fiddling with the car seat clip.
That said, anything you give him can always fall during the ride and be difficult to reach, so explain that he needs to hold onto it tight. If it falls, he’ll have to wait until you’re at your destination before you can get it for him.
3. Offer choices
Your child might feel powerless, having to abide by the rules of the adult world, rules he may not understand or doesn’t want to follow all the time.
But having choices allows him to voice his opinion and helps him feel like he’s part of your team. He’s more likely to follow directions and be more invested when he’s the one who made that choice.
That said, make sure that you’re happy with both choices you offer, regardless of which one he chooses. Don’t ask, “Would you like to get in the car seat, or stay here with grandma?” when you know you need to go home. Because he just might choose to stay put when you’d rather not.
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 toys, or snack on these crackers?” Either choice he makes works for you and gives him the autonomy he may crave.
4. Adjust the car seat
Perhaps before we assume a car seat tantrum is all about your child’s behavior, let’s start with a simple issue: the car seat.
First, make sure the car seat is actually comfortable. I don’t know about you, but it’s easy for me to forget how quickly our toddlers grow. Sometimes I won’t realize they 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.
Your child may have outgrown the car seat’s current adjustments, or even the car seat itself.
Check how he’s sitting to see if you need to adjust the straps. Are they too low below his shoulders, or chafing and rubbing his neck or thighs? You might even consider buying a different car seat if he’s now too heavy or tall for the current one.
And finally, make sure you’re fastening him tightly. If he can slip the clip up and down, the straps may not be tight enough.
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, have a number of errands to do, or feel tired from a long day at work. You’re just not in the mood for this, and your negative reaction feels warranted.
But beyond all that, it’s also “just” a tantrum. Of course, 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 her that you’ve got this.
As hard as it is, she shouldn’t see you unnerved by her behavior. It frightens her to think that her actions can bring out the worst in you. That even her parents can’t stand up to the terrible feelings a tantrum can bring.
Instead, show that you can handle this tantrum, that even the loudest tantrums won’t rattle your nerves (even if they often can!). You almost “feel sorry” for her and her frustration, just as you’d feel sorry for a friend’s bad day.
Add playfulness and fun, from singing her favorite song to staying in a good mood. Don’t make her 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. Even if I was able to strap him in against his will and be on my way, I wouldn’t be respecting his feelings or putting us on the same time.
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. We can give them something to hold, offer choices, or even adjust the car seat.
With the right communication, empathy and planning, you’ll no longer find yourself in yet another car seat tantrum.
Get more tips:
- What to Do When You’re Seeing 1 Year Old Tantrums Already
- Feel Like a Stressed Mom? How to Start Enjoying Parenthood
- What to Do when Your Child Throws Public Tantrums
- Your Guide to Handling Tantrums
- THIS Is Why Your Child Is Testing You
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