One year old fair headed white baby sitting in his grey car safety seat, with pacifier in mouth, hugging a green softie.

Car Seat Stories

How come children so often don’t want to be strapped into their car seat?

woman carrying coffee, umbrella, bags leads young child with backpack as they walk along the street.You’ve rushed out the door, already late, loaded up with all the stuff you seem to need to carry around once you’ve had children. Fling open the car door to get your child into the car seat only to be faced with the day’s next major challenge: how to get her into it.

Let’s face it: your kid has to be safe in the car, and that means that in the end, strapping her in is non-negotiable. It has to happen.

Sometimes, you just gotta do it

woman looks into camera pointing to her watch as if to say there is an appointment time.Sometimes there just isn’t any time to stop and listen to the big feelings your child has about being buckled in. At least while they are too small to know how to unbuckle, you may just have to put them in as gently as you can manage (-: so that you can safely get on your way, as they scream and thrash.

You don’t have to be mean (though it’s hard not to, when you have your mind set on getting out of the house and onto the next thing). So long as they are safe, you can listen to their upset…apologise, even, that you had to get them buckled in, and you know they don’t like it.

It’s about more than the car seat

For some children, sometimes, the outsize upset they have about getting into the car seat just doesn’t fit the situation/problem in front of you. It seems like a place where children choose to have a fight.

However, it’s not surprising that getting in the car seat is such a common difficulty.
In fact, if you’re regularly meeting resistance, the upset is probably about more than just the car seat. The struggle is a pretext or a proxy for a whole lot of big feelings which may have little to do with the car seat itself.

chooclate icecream dropped on cobble stones and meltedWhen their emotional backpack is getting heavy, children will look for opportunities to offload.  Ever had your child work themselves into a serious upset over…the…smallest…thing?  A broken pencil, a dropped ice cream, a pea on her plate…It seems ridiculous, I know, but there’s a reason it doesn’t “make sense”.  That’s because it doesn’t make sense!

At these times, a child’s upset may really be about something else.  Perhaps it is all the other times in their day when they had to do what they did not want to do, and did not have a choice over what happened or when it happened.

When you think about it, for a little one, that might be many times a day: they wanted to stay and play, but you needed to get going so dinner got cooked; they needed to sleep longer, but you needed to pick up the other children after school; they were interested in walking slowly along the fence top, and you just needed to get to the shops before they closed…

When you are in a hurry, connection drops

There are other factors at play, too. This is one of those moments in our family routine when we are often not all that relaxed or available. We’ve been busy all morning, moving towards getting out the door, worried about getting to school or to work on time. The whole morning might have been a bit stressed.

Unfortunately children can struggle at these times: their sense of connection dives when we are distracted or tense, and connection is the thing that greases the wheels of family life. So instead of a smooth transition out the door and into the car, things get snarly. The cogs grind. (I love the quote from Steve Biddulph: “Hurry is the enemy of love.” [1])

Workarounds don’t really work

Sometimes, we parents miss this cue, and try to find ways to appease or satisfy our child. Congratulations to you for every time you have managed this.  But you have probably found that these workarounds don’t always work to avoid the upset, or they may work for a while, and then stop.

In any case, the “hard limit” of the car seat doesn’t really give us that option. There is no getting around the fact that the journey can’t safely begin until they are buckled into their car seat.

And it’s predictable

Small whhite girl with brown curly hair is crying, upset.I do admire how hopeful we parents are (-;  We hope that this time it will be easy, when every other time it has not! In the face of facts to the contrary, this is unfortunately likely to leave us feeling like we have been hijacked by our children’s big feelings, at a time when we can least pay attention to them.

But rather than a hijack, this is an opportunity. A good first step is to face up to the fact that this point in the routine has been, and will likely continue to be, difficult. A predictable difficulty is one you can plan for, and with a plan, you are going to feel more confident, and less stressed.

Emotional Projects

This kind of persistent, regular, predictable difficulty is an “emotional project”. Something about the present situation is consistently pulling up some big feelings for our child. Often, the strength of the feelings doesn’t seem to match the difficulty at hand.

Its consistency tells us it is not just a passing phase. It will probably take a combination of Listening Tools, used in tandem, to resolve.

Step 1. Deal with your frustrations, and make a plan

Man about 40 years old with greying hair and wedding ring holds his hands over his eyes in frustration.And you’ll need to do some work also: when an aspect of family life has been difficult for a long time, whatever your child is feeling, it’s likely that you are also feeling tense about it. You’ll need a place to safely work through your frustrations (away from your child). If you are able to do this, you’ll get less reactive, and be able to respond more flexibly in the face of frustrating behaviour.

After one-too-many such times, this mother decided to try something different.  She says:

We had been struggling for weeks to get my daughter, S (then nearly 3 years old), into the car seat to get her to childcare in the morning. It was stressing me out.  I had several Listening Partnerships on it, and worked through some of my frustration, and then made a plan.  It was an “emotional project” that took us a few weeks to work through, but was well worth it.

Step 2. Lighten things up

Because you are probably truly sick and tired of this difficulty, and that shows, you will often need to “warm things up” with your child, and lighten up the tone around the topic.

Small child sitting in booster seat buckles up seatbelt for brown teddy bear.This mother starts with a variation on Special Time

At times when I did not have to go out at all I would suggest that we go out to the car for a play. We spent many hours in there.  My daughter would sit in the driver’s seat, push all the buttons, flick all the switches and stand up on the seat, gleefully looking out above the steering wheel as she “drove along”.  At these times, she did not need much from me except warm appreciation for her great prowess as a driver.  I made the same commitment as if it were Special Time – I put the timer on, told her how long we were going to play, and paid attention, resisting distractions, and showing my delight in her and what she was doing.[2]

And to that she adds Playlistening

White baby, about one year old, sits in drivers seat of car, with hand on steering wheel.I would try to sit in her car seat, and make a big fuss of getting into it, or make all sorts of arguments about why I should not put my seat belt on, or act confused that I did not know how to put it on. At these times, she laughed and laughed, and enjoyed telling me that I had to buckle up.

Step 3. Set a Limit, and Listen

Man holds young boy with brown hair while he cries into the mans shoulder.Having got to a more relaxed tone by playing with her daughter in the car, then this mother brings a limit – expecting that there might be an upset that follows.

With plenty of time on hand (when I did not actually have to go anywhere), every now and again I would tell my daughter that we were going to go somewhere in the car, and today we weren’t going to play.

At first, this announcement was initially enough to get her started crying about how much she did not want to get into the car seat.  Later, I would need to start packing up the bags as if we were going out, progressing to actually taking her out to the car and starting to strap her in before the protesting would start. Wherever it started, I would listen to her, not backing down from the need to get strapped in before we could leave, but not forcing the issue.  I took her expression of feeling as my guide for how fast to proceed – taking the next step toward actually strapping her in the car seat when she seemed to have finished crying about the step before.

Step 4. You might need to Listen some more (-:

It will probably take more than a couple of cries before your child is ready to be strapped in. It can be quite challenging for us to listen through the upsets our children need to expel. If you are new to this, take heart! It gets easier with experience.  Take it step by step, and feel free to be flexible. As this mother found:

Sometimes it was really full-on – as she struggled and sweated and cried about not wanting to be strapped in. Sometimes I would decide to let her break away from this and have a bit of a play in the car or retreat to the house. Then I would gently draw her attention to the fact that we would need to get strapped in soon, and she would get upset all over again (-;

Step 5. Back off if you need to…

You aren’t trying to “teach” your child to buckle up – they already know that this is important. You are trying to drain away the big feelings which are coming up for them when they do have to buckle up.

So it’s fine to back off when you feel like you can’t handle it any more, or you are worried your child is overwhelmed.  (By the way, they are probably not – they just have a lot bigger feelings to offload than you have the attention to listen to).  What you can handle will also vary from day to day.  As this mother says:

Sometimes I would listen to her protests for a while, holding the limit, saying “We do need to get buckled up” in as gentle a tone as I could manage. Then it would either be time to strap in and get going regardless, or we would move on to something else. At these times I would just explain “I think we don’t need to go out anymore. Let’s go inside and see what is happening there”.

Over time her upset at having to be strapped into the car seat got less and less, until at some point, it was no longer an issue.

Is it manipulative to “pretend” to go out so as to precipitate an upset?  I don’t think so.  My daughter and I are very close (she is now 9) and she is quick to let me know if she thinks something is not right or unfair or if I am “off track”.  Never once has she referred to these “car seat sagas” – it seems as if whatever tension she was carrying about being in the car got dealt with, and after that, getting strapped in was not a problem.  If we had had enough, we went inside and did something else – which she was usually happy to do, and if not, well, I would just have to Staylisten about that!

Sometimes, I just couldn’t face the struggle, and I couldn’t bring myself to play either.  I would pack a book, and if she would not get into the car seat I would say – “No problem, you can stay and play, I’m just going to read my book until you are ready.”  It wasn’t ideal, but more often than not there was, in fact, enough time for this to happen.

Consistency is overrated

We have probably all had it drummed into us that it is important to be consistent in our interactions with our children.  In this example, however, consistency is not vital.  Worries about consistency are rooted in a concern that your child will “get the wrong idea”.  But when your child is off-track because they have big feelings they need to off-load, they haven’t got a lot of “ideas” in their heads.  They have got a lot of feelings.

Mother snuggles her daughter's cheekWhat is needed is your consistent warmth, approval and connection with your child.  In reality, we change our minds, and our plans, more often than we realise.  Probably several times a day.  Our children are watching, and they know this, and in general they can make sense of it.  It’s when we are emotionally inconsistent that they get confused.

The mother in the story above started with Special Time and Playlistening, because this is what relaxes the tension around a topic, and because these are reliable ways to offer consistent warmth, approval and connection with your child.  This deposits credit into the “emotional bank account”, which, in a sense, you will borrow from when you set a limit. Limits will be experienced by your child as “going against them”.  Limits are necessary – sometimes, like getting buckled in the car seat, essential.  And your relationship is stronger for setting limits with your child – because life is easier once upsets are out of the way. And Special Time and Playlistening ensure that anything which might have been a little hard on your child in the process, or even mistakes you might have made, are balanced out.

Over time, things will shift

Small boy with screwdriver in hand holds the car to peer around car wheel which is chocked to stop it moving, looking for someone out of the picture frame, as If to help fix the car.I’m not promising that your car seat struggles will be over with just 10 minutes of sadness, or one good play with the buttons, wheels and switches. But I’m pretty sure that over time, if you make time, the difficulty will shift, and getting into the car and on your way will be straightforward, at least for a while.

No need to go it alone!

Madeleine loves to help: why not book a Free 20 Minute Consultation, and she can help direct you to the best resources and support.


[1] Steve Biddulph’s website

[2]It’s important to understand that this is a variation on Special Time – not Special Time proper. Because this mother is directing the topic – play in the car – it’s not truly Special Time. At least some of the time you spend with your child as Special Time needs to be directed by the child. This is because one of the purposes of Special Time is for a child to set the agenda, communicating with you about their concerns and interests without you assuming that you know what these are. If you are setting the agenda for Special Time, it’s not quite the same.

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