Car Seat Madness

screaming carseat

In my work with parents of toddlers, I would rank car seats as one of the most complicated and tricky issues.  Here we are, wanting and trying to be respectful of our children.  We read books, we attend workshops (waving at the parents from my discipline workshop last night!), we talk with other parents….and yet, here we are, one hand on our child’s chest, holding them–forcing them (ugh, that word “forcing”) into their car seats.  Our children are twisting and arching their backs and screaming and kicking and pummeling our heads with their fists as we hold them down and buckle them in.  Let’s face it.  It’s awful for everyone.  And the day has often just begun!

This is the place where even the greatest fans of gentle and respectful parenting question the wisdom of their ways.  This is a non-negotiable.  If we are traveling by car, there is no way around it.  There are very few things that our children absolutely must do, that there is no authentic choice to be offered (other than the closed choices–“would you like to do it or would you like me to do it?”–with which we are so familiar).  We’re up a creek without a paddle.  This is the place where we say “that whole conscious parenting thing is crap, I’m giving them M&M’s or putting on a DVD.”  And if you do, you do.  We all make concessions to get through our days.  It is still my hope that I can convince you otherwise, but you’re right, I’m not sitting there in your driveway with you at 7:00 in the morning.

So, what’s going on?  And what to do?  In this era of the vast-internet-resources-in-which-all-questions-are-answered, surely someone has offered some spectacular advice for this situation, which SO many people struggle with every day.  I’ve read most of it (you’re welcome.)  I haven’t seen anything I can adopt hook, line and sinker yet…I like pieces of what a few people have said, but I haven’t seen anything yet that really addresses the intensity of the situation for many parents (and children) in a comprehensive way.

So I figure it’s my turn.

As I see it, there are several issues at work, most notably: time, communication, confidence, flexibility of style, routines, developmental status, and history of limit-setting.  Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

Before we do that, though, let’s just acknowledge that the restriction of a car seat is really not fun.  In general, toddlers and young children hate being tightly restricted.  Right from the get go, car seats are a losing game.  If you can find authentic compassion for that, repeatedly recognize and acknowledge it in your children, and treat it as simply one of those discomforts of life that we have to tolerate, but we never have to like, you’ll be ahead of the game from the start.

Okay.  One at a time.  None of these stand alone.  None are quick fixes.  They are here, as ever, for your consideration.

Time:  If you are anything like me (or like most other parents of young children out there), you are rarely blessed with the luxury of extra time–time to slow downTime to slow down when you are on your way to day care in the morning, time to slow down after pickup from day care in the evening, time to slow down when you’re trying to squeeze in a car ride to pick up some groceries, really hoping that your toddler doesn’t fall asleep on the way to the store because then his nap later on in the day is going to get all messed up, and then bedtime will get messed up, etc.  You get the idea.  All the same, slowing down is frequently a very good idea.

No one likes to be rushed.  And when I say no one, I mean toddlers.  And everyone else.  But really toddlers.  If there is anything you can do to give yourself five or ten or fifteen minutes extra so that you don’t feel rushed when you’re heading out the door with your child, it will pay off.  The extra time might be on the front end (getting up ten minutes later so that the whole morning schedule isn’t so rushed), or it might be on the back end (getting to the car 5 or 10 minutes before you actually have to leave, so that there are a few minutes for some playfulness or for them to explore a bit in the car before getting into the car seat).  You’ll have to see which one works for you and for your child. Some children find the transition much harder if they’re allowed to play in the car for a few minutes first, and it will increase their protest–those children are much better off with getting directly into the car seat.  Some children will find that slower transition much more satisfying.  You know your child and her response to transitions best.

Young children respond to feelings of pressure with resistance–for a toddler, it feels like a power grab, and they are determined to have power.  When the pressure lessens, the resistance lessens.  Extra time–even five minutes–can reduce that pressure.

Communication: Ah, communication with toddlers is a delicate balance.  We give them notice of how much time is left (“In five minutes, it will be time to leave.”)–but sometimes we give them too much notice, or we use too many words (often toddlers hear only the last two or three words that we speak), or they just aren’t paying attention to us anyway.   We explain to them what to expect next  (“When we go to the car, the first thing we’re going to do is buckle you into your carseat”)–but sometimes we say it as we’re grabbing lunch and keys and oh-I-forgot-to-grab-that-flash-drive-out-of-my-computer.   Which brings us right back to time–because it takes time and intentionally to communicate effectively with toddlers.

To communicate effectively with toddlers, we need to speak calmly and clearly and without using too many words and at their eye level.  The difference between calmly (remember, you’re calm because you left a little extra time, right?) going over, squatting down, touching your child gently on her shoulder until she looks at you and telling her “In three minutes, it’s going to be time to leave” and calling the same words out as you rush around the house and she’s sitting on the floor playing with legos or trying with great effort to put on her own jacket is gargantuan.  Really, only the first of these is communication.

Perhaps most importantly, if you have a longstanding history of empathically acknowledging your child’s emotions in a direct fashion–such that both of you are used to that “mechanism” as an effective way to work through difficult feelings–you are ten steps ahead.  That sort of acknowledgement, a blend of echoing and reflection, does not come naturally to most of us, yet it is probably the most powerful tool in our parenting kit, once we get good at it.  In this case, be sure to acknowledge that you understand that they don’t want to be in the carseat and that it’s necessary so that you can keep them safe.   Incidentally, this is a prominent reason that I advocate so strongly for parents to start this “respectful discipline” stuff while our children are infants–we get to practice all of these strategies before the stakes become high and we’re being triggered all over the place.  Then, when the more challenging months and years arrive, these techniques are second nature, and the words flow out of our mouths as if we’ve been doing it all of our lives!

Confidence: This is the motherlode.  Janet Lansbury writes beautifully about this, and she even talks about it in the context of children struggling with getting into car seats.  She reminds us that:

“Problems happen when we try to avoid cries or are afraid to be decisive leaders. If we waffle, that makes the child feel uneasy, unsettled, and usually makes the eventual tantrum last longer, leads to more resistance about the car seat and other things. When we are tentative, we leave our child in an uncomfortable state of limbo.”

In another post, she likens it to being a CEO:

I’ve been encouraging parents that struggle with this to imagine they are a successful CEO and that their toddler is a respected underling. The CEO corrects the errors of others with confident, commanding efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior, or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge.

Just to be clear, when we speak of confidence in this context, it is different from firmness or “speaking with confidence.”  It is not about how you sound–it is about what you feel inside.  As you head out to the car, are you dreading what is coming?  I mean, who could blame you?  Getting  a squirming, screaming child into a car seat isn’t exactly something to look forward to.  At the same time, you find yourself in a position of coming at the task with an expectation of struggle–and it’s hard to genuinely feel confident that all is “under control” at the same time.  It’s a bit of power of positive thinking thing, combined with a healthy helping of self-fulfilling prophecy.

I know.  This is a tall order.  Confidence and positive expectations are not something we can create by simply flipping a switch (ah, life would be so easy.) Reticence is a valid emotion.  Like the other topics here, it’s just something to consider, and maybe to experiment with.  You know, on one of those nights when you’ve had a really good sleep (ha!), which (in case you don’t remember) tends to leave you in a much more positive and confident frame of mind.

Flexibility of style: If you’ve done any reading or asked around about potential solutions to challenges such as this one, you’ve probably found that they fit pretty neatly into a few categories.  Those that emphasize rewards for desired behavior (M&M’s, getting to use Dad’s iPhone), and those that are punitive in nature (punishment or shaming for not cooperating) are not in the spirit of my practice or this blog; for that matter, neither is distraction, as it dismisses the child’s experience and emotions, though I will freely admit that there have been times when distraction seems almost unavoidable.  That basically leaves two–the respectful “CEO” strategy and the “playful parenting” strategy.   In my experience, a lot of well-meaning parents feel as if they have to choose between these; for example, they feel that playfulness is the best way to diffuse tension…and yet they don’t always feel capable of the creative or positive energy needed to carry off a playful solution, such as the one so wonderfully described (again, about the seat belt struggle) by Kristen Volk of Parenting by Connection.

I’m here to say:  You don’t have to choose.  You not only don’t have to be perfect.  You don’t have to choose.  If there is a day when your right brain is firing on all cylinders (look at me, using automotive metaphors), and you feel up for a creative and playful solution, in which you pretend to get your thumb stuck in the latch or you bring along a baby doll and a toy car seat for the child to buckle in first, or you respond with a silly noise that matches each of your child’s movements on the way to their carseat as if they’re a robot, go right ahead.  See how your child responds.  Yes, it does seem a version of distraction…and at the same time, playfulness gets us through life with a lighter perspective, not to mention being one of the primary “languages” of childhood.  I prefer to see it more as “meeting the child in her world.”  In contrast, there will be days when you’re not up for that.  Just because you try it once and it works doesn’t mean you have to think of a new game–or even repeat the same game–every day.  You can be a firm, confident, consistent “person in charge” and you can still be playful.  The two are not mutually exclusive–don’t get hung up on choosing.  Your child will not be confused.

Routines: Young children thrive off of repetition and routine.  Any parent who has read the same book six times in a row knows this all too well.  If you are having difficulties with any part of your daily routine (including car seats), if you can establish a particular routine or ritual around it that happens the same way every day, that will likely help to ease the struggle.  Is getting into the seat the first thing that happens every day?  In the winter, is there a ritual around taking off a heavy jacket before getting into the carseat, or a tucking in of a blanket over their lap?  Is there a big hug and a kiss or a funny handshake before you head out the door to go to the car?   What do you do every day, every time?

Developmental status:  Repeat after me: This too shall pass.  Even if you have to hold your child by the chest to get him into the car seat, which feels worse than almost anything else that any conscious parent might have to do, that stage will also pass, and you won’t have to do that anymore, and they won’t hold it against you.  Really.  This sort of dogged resistance and tantruming and fighting mightily about getting into car seats (or other things) is largely a feature of toddler development.  They will get older.  They will move on.  This won’t always be hard (different things will be hard!)  It doesn’t help in the moment, but putting behavior in developmental context is always a valuable reminder.

History of limit-setting:  This can be a great opportunity to examine the ways in which limit setting is comfortable, uncomfortable, or challenging for you, as well as for your child’s other parent(s) or caregiver(s).  Is setting limits something that is hard for you, maybe because it’s very hard to see your child upset, or because you may feel badly that you don’t get as much time with them as you’d like?  In general, how “natural” does it feel for you to explain clearly and succinctly to your child precisely where boundaries lie, and to follow up consistently and promptly?  Is the carseat an anomaly, where all other limit setting goes well, and it’s just this one thing that is a real problem (in which case, it may have more to do with the physical restriction or separation)?  Or does limit setting provoke angst in you, producing worry that you’re being too strict or too lenient, that you have too many or two few boundaries with your child’s behavior.

It can be useful to you, in devising solutions to challenging behaviors, to examine whether the struggle with the car seat is part of a pattern for the child, part of a pattern for you, or both.  If there are frequent tantrums in a range of situations, and you find yourself frequently triggered or angry, there may be a larger pattern to shift that has little to do with the carseat.  Is there a piece of your story that makes it especially hard to create physical limits, say, by needing to hold the child firmly into their seat to buckle them up?  Are you fearful that you are being rougher than you should be?  Are you able to let go of the idea that that action, if carried out calmly and without anger or frustration, will somehow scar your child?  Are you able to consider that it may be precisely what they are needing at this point in their development?  More things to weigh.  Always more things to weigh.

One last thing that I’ve not really mentioned here, and that is not featured in any of the articles and solutions I have encountered:  try to think creatively about context outside of the immediate struggle of the carseat, especially as it relates to emotions or connection. Is it possible that the struggle is not so much about being in the carseat as it is about heading somewhere to be away from you for the day, or recovering/decompressing from a full day of out of home care?  In other words, is it possible that the child is treating the carseat as a “marker” for separation?  What might happen if we were to bypass the nature of the struggle itself and validate and acknowledge that it’s hard when parents go to work, and how much fun it would be to be able to spend the entire day together?  Things are not always as they appear–it’s always prudent to leave options for interpretation wide open.

Keep your options open.  Welcome multiple interpretations.  Consider context.  Forgive yourself.  This too shall pass.

And then, of course, if all else fails, there’s always Bob Marley.

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