Bickering in the backseat: How to cope on the way to school

by | Feb 4, 2020

No matter how peaceful the start to your day, the trip to school can undo all of your efforts to get the kids to school in a less stressed state. Dr Laura Markham has some ideas for how to keep the peace.

It’s finally the first day of school. Your children are so excited, they took forever to fall asleep last night. They struggled this morning over what to wear. They barely picked at that healthy breakfast you got up early to make for them. Their excitement is tinged with nervousness, naturally. And who better to take it out on than their brother or sister, sitting next to them in the back seat?

Mason: “I wonder what Mrs Jones will be like. Is she strict?”
Savannah: “She’s mean. All the kids say so.”
Mason: “Oh, no! I hope she’ll like me.”
Savannah: “She won’t. Nobody likes you.”
Mason: “They do, too! Last year, Mrs Wright liked me!”
Savannah: “That’s because you’re a goody two-shoes. And they don’t really like you.”
Mason: “Mom! Do people like me?
Mom: “Of course they do, Mason. Savannah, stop being mean to your brother. Please, let’s everybody be nice and have a nice drive to the first day of school.”
Savannah: “I’m just telling the truth.” (Makes a nasty face at Mason)
Mason: “You meany!” (Shoves at Savannah)
Savannah: “Mooommmmm! He hit me!”
Mom (Yelling): “Okay, that’s it! No iPad later for either of you. And no more talking! If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all!”

Before you realise it, you are yelling. By the time they get out of the car, the kids are sullen. Your plans for a peaceful start to the day just evaporated before your eyes. Backseat bickering can completely ruin your morning.

Luckily, there are things you can do to turn the tide when the tone gets tense in your car. Let’s rewind this script, but first, our guiding principles:

1. Calm yourself
It’s natural to get angry when your children are mean to each other. But indulging your temper just adds fuel to the fire. Instead, remember that your goal is restore a sense of safety for both children. So take a deep breath and remind yourself that there’s no emergency. Your tone will be warmer and more soothing, which gives you a chance to calm the storm.

2. Connect with both children, using empathy
Most of the time, kids bicker when they’re worried, bored, or still angry about something that happened previously. If you can address the real reason, you can stop the fight before it starts.

3. Set limits and enforce family rules about kindness
Every home needs a few clear rules about how people in the family treat each other, and “We’re kind” is one of the most important. Interrupt unkind remarks to set a clear standard for civility. All children will get angry at each other – conflict is a part of every human relationship – but they can be encouraged to express their needs and wants without attacking the other person.
Of course, when you set the limit, stay kind yourself. Children learn from our role-modelling how to handle the problems they have with other people. And they’re more likely to follow your limits if you can stay connected while you set them.

4. When possible, defuse tension by using humour
When kids are anxious, they tend to lash out. Take the edge off their worry by getting them laughing, which transforms their body chemistry, reducing stress hormones and increasing “feel-good” neurotransmitters.
Of course, you don’t want them to feel ridiculed, so first empathise with their concerns. Then, say something so silly they can’t help laughing, or make yourself the object of the humour, so they’re not laughing at each other. This also helps your children work through the universal fear that they themselves might get laughed at.

How to put that all together? Let’s rewind.

Mason: “Mom! Do people like me?”
Mom: (Taking a deep breath and intentionally calming her voice) “Mason, it’s natural to be a little worried on the first day of school. You had a great year last year with Mrs Wright. She really loved having you in her class last year. (Empowering him by helping him see that he has the capability to shape his own experience) You can make it a great year this year in Mrs Jones’ class, too, even though there will be new things to get used to.”
(Setting the limit and empathising at the same time) “Savannah, I hear you saying things that could be hurtful to Mason. I wonder if you might be a little worried, too. The first day of school is hard on everyone. I would love to hear how you’re feeling about starting Grade 4.”
Savannah: “Mom, I’m just telling the truth. Some of the teachers ARE mean.”
Mom: “I understand that not all the teachers are as nice as Mrs Brown from last year. But all of them want to help you learn. It sounds like you might be a bit nervous about what YOUR new teacher will be like.”
Savannah: “Mom, Grade 4 is hard. They give you lots of homework. That’s what all the kids say.”
Mom: (Empathising and reassuring while encouraging Savannah to share more concerns) “It could be worrisome to hear that from the other kids. Don’t worry, you did fine with your homework last year, and I will help you to manage your homework if it feels hard for you. What do you know about your teacher?”
Savannah: “Mr Moore? The kids say he’s funny. But Mom, what if he’s mean?”
Mom: “That’s scary to think about, but honey, he could turn out to be great, your favourite teacher of all. We just don’t know yet. It’s okay to be a little worried, but why not hope for the best? I have an idea for both of you. Why don’t we all take three deep breaths, and make a loud ahhh when we let them out? That will calm us down. Then you can go into the school feeling more relaxed and hopeful.”
Mason and Savannah: “Mom, you’re weird!”
Mom: “That’s me … the optimistic weird mom! Do you think I should come into the school and sit and do my deep breathing in the front hall? Would that calm everyone’s first day jitters? I could Ohm loudly, like this: Ohmmmm …”
Mason and Savannah (laughing): “Mom, that’s crazy! Don’t you dare!”
Mom: “Okay, I won’t do that. But let’s do it now … three deep breaths. I want to hear your loud ahhh when you let your breath out, okay? Can you two work together to make a louder noise than me?”

Notice what Mom did here to turn this around? She set a limit on the mean teasing without scolding. She empathised with both children, even the one who was starting the fight. She got them laughing to defuse the tension. She gave her kids a tool to manage the emotions that were otherwise driving them to fight with each other. She even got a little teamwork going!
If you’ve never done this before, you might want to put a short cheat sheet in your car that says:

  • Calm yourself.
  • Connect with both children using empathy.
  • Set limits and enforce family rules about kindness.
  • Get your kids laughing by saying something ridiculous.

It takes practice, but you’ll see immediate results, and you’ll gain confidence over time. You might even find yourself putting up the same cheat sheet in your kitchen!

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