Screaming in the Car

Here’s a great question I was recently asked by a parent whose child thinks the car is the place to test vocal chord capacity.


What’s a way to discipline an action that is annoying (like screaming in the car)? What is a natural and/or logical consequence for these kinds of actions? Should I view any action that just bothers me personally as something I just need to get over?

Ah, the piercing sounds of shrill voices permeating the tiny space inside a car. Few things rattle the ear drums and test the nerves as much as these. And, while some bothersome actions can be ignored, this is an annoyance that needs our attention. Not only is screaming in the car irritating, it can be dangerous, too.

When dealing with an annoying or inappropriate behavior, parents often search for the ideal consequence to get it to stop.  But before I share a consequence,  I want to suggest that if we focus specifically on providing a consequence after the action has occurred, we’ll likely miss the underlying need that is causing the behavior. And if that underlying need does not get met, the behavior will pop up again in one form or another. Therefore, before I suggest consequences, let’s take a look at possible root causes of the annoying behavior and see if we can prevent it altogether.

Could it be that the screaming occurs because your child has lots of energy and needs to let it out?
You may want to try to get the wiggles out by having a running, dancing, jumping, singing/speaking loudly session before getting into the car.

Could it be that the screaming is in response to siblings squabbling in the backseat?
Perhaps reducing the tension with distractions could help. Offering to have your child take a favorite toy into the car, or enlisting them to choose a healthy snack for the ride are two popular ideas. And when my sons were younger, our family’s favorite car distraction was listening to music or books on tape.

          Music: Up through early elementary school, CDs by Raffi, Cedarmont Kids and Joe McDermott were a must in my car. Sing-a-longs came naturally to us, and we all chimed in. Local children’s musicians also drew our attention, and if we were lucky enough to see them performing live, we’d purchase their CD for extra special encores. As my kids got older, clean radio stations like KLOVE and AIR1 replaced the CDs, but the singing continued.

          Books on Tape: Focus on the Family has a terrific series of children’s stories called Adventures in Odyssey and Whit’s End. My kids would listen for hours on end. We borrowed copies from the library, where we’d stock up each week. The kids knew they had to be buckled in their seats with no bickering before I’d play the CD. And sometimes we’d do a brief recap of what had already happened in the adventure and what we thought might happen next before resuming our listening. As they got older, we listened to books on tape from their favorite authors. Or sometimes they’d prefer to simply read a great book to kill the time in the boring car.

Could it be that they have trouble with volume control?
Depending upon their developmental age or possible sensory issues, kiddos may need to learn how to modulate their voices (speak in soft and loud tones). Try making a game of this by having them copy your tone of voice and what you are saying. Then you can talk about when and where those volumes are appropriate. Here’s an example:

  1. (You whisper) “This is my quiet voice. I use it when the baby is sleeping and when I’m at the library or in the car.”
  2. (Then using a conversational voice) “This is my inside voice. I can use it in the house, in the car, and when I’m talking to grandma on the telephone.
  3. (Finally, using a raised voice) “This is my loud voice. I use it outside or when I call to you across the house.”

At the first sound of loud voices being used in the car, remind them (in your whispering voice) “Only quiet and inside voices are allowed in the car. Loud voices are for outside.” You can even go further by making funny noises in your quiet and inside voices to get the point across. Try growling, squeaking, speaking in a deep voice, or even in an accent and invite your kids to mimic you.

Could it be that they feel alone and are trying to connect with you?
Create conversation: Kids get bored sitting in the car and that can feel lonely even though you are sitting inches away. Driving is a great time to engage them in conversation. Try connecting with a story, by asking questions about their new friend or toy, or by making up a story together.

Setting the Rule:
It’s important for our kids to learn to follow rules, particularly when safety is involved. It’s also important to set a clear rule about voices in the car. Try to avoid using the word NO, as in “NO screaming in the car,” as this tends to invite a challenge to the rule. Instead, declare in a soft voice that, “The inside of the car is a quiet zone. Only quiet and inside voices are allowed.”

If screams occur while driving, gently remind and redirect. If the rule is broken again and you are headed to your a place your child is looking forward to (like a play date), try saying, “This car will go to Johnny’s house if everyone is using quiet voices while we drive. Screaming voices will make the car go home.” This sets a clear boundary but also puts the power to choose in your child’s hands. Be prepared to follow through if the rule is indeed broken.

It does pay to choose your battles wisely, and there are situations when “just getting over” the annoyance can be helpful. But behaviors that involve safety or are ongoing should not be overlooked. Look to prevention to not only address the problem today but to keep it from coming back in the future. You can find more about effectively handling annoying behaviors in these posts too: A Real Solution for Annoying Behaviors Part 1 and Part 2.

Question: Please share! What activities do you use in the car to keep your kids occupied and make the drive easier? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Showing Love by Backing off

I’ve got to stop trying to be helpful! Lately, I find the more I jump in to lend a hand, the more confusion, frustration and chaos I cause. How sad. But true.

I’m a do-er and a helper. Combine that with my waves of high energy or over-caffeinated brain, and you’ve got a Super Servant ready for action. But often I forget that people don’t need (or sometimes even want) my assistance, and it can be rude for me to jump in without asking first. Sometimes I take a helpful leap only to find I’ve done it wrong. Talk about embarrassing! This holds true for my friends, family and even strangers. But I think it’s most significant when dealing with my teenagers.

Just as plants need plenty of fertile soil and room to grow, teens need their space and opportunities to be independent. I tend to forget this, and I inadvertently box my kids in with advice and reminders. My intentions are loving and my desire is to be helpful. But more and more, my two cents is perceived as nagging and intrusive, and it’s disrupting relationships more than strengthening them. So, I’m learning to back off a bit and show more respect for their quest for independence.

Ironically, I often talk about how to help kids STOP their annoying behaviors. I talk about how to look for the underlying need that is contributing to the behavior, and I suggest providing an appropriate alternative to replace the annoying behavior. (This alternative helps fill the unmet need that is underlying and causing the behavior). Well, it seems I’m engaging in an annoying behavior (intrusively helping), and I need an appropriate alternative to help me stop.

In order to show love and be true to my helpful heart while respecting my teens’ space and capabilities, here is the intervention strategy I’ve come up with:

  1.  Share what I see: “Looks like you’ve got a busy week of school ahead of you- big math and science tests and a history project due! How are you feeling about that?”
  2.  Show confidence in my teen. “You’ve done a great job of keeping your grades up all year, and I know you can handle the load next week. I’m going to do my best to not nag you, but I also want you to know I’m here for you. If you happen to need me, just ask.”
  3. Continue to show love in other ways, like making a favorite meal, surprising them by making their bed, putting an extra treat in their lunch box, or writing a note of encouragement and leaving it on their pillow. These gentle reminders tell them that I’m thinking of them and provide a non-intrusive pick-me-up to keep them motivated.

The bottom line is that by respecting my teen’s space and need for independence, I AM showing love and support. It feels counterintuitive, but if I can remember this, I’m sure it will make backing off a bit easier. Showing love by backing off… now that’s going to be a tough one to master!

How to Create a Personal Summer Reading Program

Books may be turning into dinosaurs in today’s culture, but they are alive and well in my home, particularly during the summer months.  Want to spark imaginations, boost reading skills, and sharpen minds in your kids while school is out? Please read on:

When my boys were toddlers, each summer they looked forward to Wii Night- an all night Wii playing-video watching-fun food eating- celebration for completing their personal reading log goals. Based on the summer reading programs offered by many libraries, we came up with our own program filled with hand picked motivators, and the kids (still!) dive into it every year. Many have asked me to share what I do, so here is an idea of how ours works:

First, determine how many pages (and what level of difficulty) you want your child to read by a certain date at the end of the summer. (For instance, one year my boys needed to read 2500 pages by August 21 to qualify for Wii Night). Then, assign rewards to smaller sub-goals, so the kids can earn them as they go. That year we chose:

500 pages – I buy them a book of their choice from the store
1000 pages – a big candy bar and video rental with a fun movie night
1500 pages – $15 iTunes card
2000 pages – water park admission
2500 pages – Wii NIGHT

Incentives do not need to be expensive! In fact, they don’t have to cost anything at all. Just find out what will really motivate your kids the most and use that. Create a chart where they can check off their completed reading in chunks of 10 or 25 pages. It’s fun for them to check off their accomplishments as they go. (To ensure accountability:  I sign off of on their logs, as well. AND I must approve the reading level of each book before I sign. Some parents ask their kids to give a brief summary of the book , too).

The fine print: As my boys got older,  I added requirements to the list. For instance, this summer they’ll need to read a biography and a historical fiction novel as part of the their required pages. They balked at first, but this opens them up to genres they wouldn’t choose on their own. And when kids discover great books in seemingly “boring” genres, it opens them up to a whole new world!