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Toddlers, Tantrums and Car Seats

Waaaah!  I don’t wanna get in the car!!!!  I wanna play on the roundabout again! I don’t wanna get in the car!!! Don’t wanna!  No! No! No! Waaaaaah!

If you are a parent, you probably recognise that sort of conversation and your heart sinks.  Because in spite of what your toddler thinks, he or she is going to have to get into the car. And you can’t just pick them up bodily and plonk them on the back seat like what used to happen in the past when the typical passenger car didn’t have rear seatbelts.  Oh no.  It’s got to be the car seat, securely buckled in.

If you have a four-door sedan, hatch or station wagon, you are in luck.  The job of getting a stroppy toddler throwing a tantrum into a car seat will only be moderately difficult.  Now you know why big Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores are such popular family cars in Australia.  The difficulty level goes up a notch if you have an MPV or a 4×4 with seven seats and the car seat is right in the back row or in on the driver’s side… with a van-style door on the passenger side.  As for a three-door hatch or a two-door sedan or coupé – boy, you’ve got problems. Anything that can be clung onto in an attempt to resist being put in the car seat will be.  Toddlers have surprisingly strong grip and the door pillar (aka B pillar) in, say, a 3-door Suzuki Swift  is just the right size to be grabbed.  And then you have the issue of folding down any seats in the way with a screaming, wriggling little body in your arms.

Next, you have to actually wrestle the toddler into the car seat, and get all arms and legs into the right place so you can do up the harness… which children between 6 months and 4 years have to have.  This is definitely a two-hand job, so sling whatever you can onto the driver’s seat to keep it safe.  It can be tempting to hold a stroppy kid in place with a strategically placed knee, especially with those harnesses that require two hands to do up.  This does not look good, although in extreme cases, it can be done very gently and lightly.  What makes this wrestling job worse is that the person you’re trying to get into the seat is likely to be kicking and hitting at you – and even a two-year-old is capable of hitting you quite hard in the vulnerable areas that tend to be exposed when bending over to do up a car seat harness.

So what are you going to do?  Here are a handful of ideas that might work for you and your child:

  • Bribery and corruption.  Offer a treat as a reward once the car seat is done up.  Might work once or twice but this sets up the idea that once a tantrum is thrown, a reward is given in order to stop it… so another tantrum is started next time to get the reward for stopping.
  • “The cops will be very cross with you and me if you don’t have your seatbelt on.”  It’s probably not the best to use cops as a sort of bogeyman who will Get You if you don’t behave, as this does create a bad image of cops as bad guys later on, but can work.  Even more effective if a cop is nearby and can be inveigled into telling the child to wear the seatbelt or else.
  • “You need to be safe in the car in case we crash.”  Won’t work.  Crashes are an abstract concept for little kids who have never been in one.  Explaining and reasoning with someone who thinks a tantrum is the best solution to a problem never works.
  • Hold the child on your lap, or put him/her in a safe place until the tantrum finishes. Then put your child – who will probably be exhausted by now – into the car seat. Requires patience.  In a supermarket car park, the back seat of the car is a good safe place for the tantrum to take place.  If you sit in the car and do nothing, eventually your toddler will decide that being buckled in and going somewhere is a lot more fun than screaming and throwing a wobbly in the back seat of a stationary car.
  • Distraction.  Works for tantrums in a lot of situations. Requires a sense of humour and the willingness to look silly in a car park.  You could try making the car “throw a tantrum too if you don’t let me put your seatbelt on” and then see what you can do with hazard lights, horns and/or car alarms. Alternatively try “Can you do a louder scream than that?” or “I can see another scream coming – have a look and see it in the car mirror?  What about in this mirror? Does it look the same?  What about in the other wing mirror?” Or mimic your child by going “Waaaah! Don’t wanna!” back at them or in synch with them.
If only it was this easy...

If only it was this easy…

If tantrums about getting in the car are a common problem, then allow yourself a bit of extra travel time margin for them to take place. This takes the stress off you slightly.

Hang in there.  They do grow out of the tantrum stage eventually.  Later on, you’ll get the “Can I borrow the car keys?” issue, but that’s another story.


  1. Regina says:

    You wouldn’t believe how many people with small children in seats buy 2-door vehicles…it happens more often than you would think. They usually return in short order looking for something more practical!

    December 1st, 2013 at 5:08 am