"What can I do to get my kids to stop fighting in the car? I know my yelling is wrong and they don’t listen anyway, but I have no idea what else to do. HELP!"
- Frazzled mother of two, ages 3 and 5.
All Behaviour Serves a Purpose
Usually sibling fighting serves to get attention (albeit negative) from parents. Kids don’t mind negative attention if it is all they can get. It is like the old adage: bad press is better than no press.
Do other parents complain to you of their fighting when they are in their care? I’ll bet the answer is no. The fighting is for OUR benefit as parents! When we are out of the picture, it loses its purpose. That means children can decide to either fight or not fight. And it takes two to have a fight. Fighting is, in fact, an act of cooperation; it’s just that it’s on the negative or useless side of life rather than the positive or useful side.
Eliminate the Mistaken Approach
If you want the fighting to disappear you have to make fights an ineffective way of getting attention. That means you must ignore them. That is hard while you are in a car, and I am sure that is in fact why children chose the car as the ideal place to fight! They have a captive audience who cannot help but give attention in the form of ineffective verbal corrections, such as:
"Stop that", "You’re driving me crazy" or "Enough. I have had enough!"
After all, if you weren’t busy saying those things you’d be free to talk to your spouse, listen to the radio, or any other number of things besides paying attention to the children. Let’s face it – well behaved children are ignored! We figure they’re set, so let’s do something else.
In fact, we train them – if they want us, all they have to do is act up. We need to train them in the reverse. Give attention when they are acting appropriately and ignore them when they are not. They’ll quickly learn to come about in their strategy.
Firm and Friendly
The trick is to not cave in to the demand for undue attention while staying calm and aloof (I know this is the hard part – especially with fighting). You do not need to ignore the children, just their fighting. If you only step in and get involved in their fights when they are really intense or physical, then you are unknowingly teaching your child to fight louder, longer and harder to be effective!
So, ignore the fighting. 100%. Cold turkey.
Mom: "It is not safe for me to drive with this noise and distraction. Can you two stop fighting or do I need to pull over?"
Tip: You only need to explain and offer choice the first time, all subsequent times if they start to fight simply pull over.
Watch the Feet Not the Mouth
Regardless of how the children answer your question ("We’ll stop fighting, honest" – kick, punch, poke) their real decision or intention is shown in their choice of behaviour not their words. Respond to what they do, not to what they say.
Follow Through – Action Not Words
If the children continue to fight then simply pull off the road, put the car in park, pull out a book and start to read. This will relax you and it demonstrates that you are not paying attention. After all – when was the last time you had time to read? Relish the opportunity! If you look upset or concerned they’ll know you are paying attention and continue.
If things get too wild, you can read from outside the car.
Mom: "I’m going to read on the grass here – let me know when you are ready for me to drive again".
TIP: Don’t interfere with the learning by talking or rolling your eyes! This is not about you and your approval or disapproval. The lesson will be learned through the simple connection that when we fight – the car stops. Therefore, to make the car go we need to cooperate. The children see that they hold this power and mom is just following through on simple rules for social living in a respectful manner.
Your car trips should be much more joyful in no time. So, pack a book on your next trip and let me know how it goes!
About the Author:
Alyson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada’s most notable parenting experts. She is the resident expert on The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News Channel and CBC’s The World This Weekend. Alyson is an “Ask an Expert” Columnist for Today’s Parent Magazine, and sits on the Health Advisory Board for Chatelaine Magazine. Alyson is the best selling author of “Breaking The Good Mom Myth” and “Honey, I Wrecked The Kids” and her latest, “Ain’t MIsbehavin”. She is an international speaker including the inaugural TEDxKids in Brussels and offers free parenting tips at www.alysonschafer.com.