One Simple Game That Will Tame Toddler Car Tantrums

Inside: Toddlers and Preschoolers are notorious for melting down in the car. Use this simple game to tame toddler car tantrums. 

The whining was the last straw.

It was the end of a long work day and I was beyond exhausted. Once again, my breakfast and lunch consisted of whatever was available in the vending machines. The back-to-back meetings had given me a splitting headache above my left eye, and I just needed a moment of calm.

So, the whining really was the last straw.

You see, there is really nothing more magical than the moment a working Mom gets to reunite with her kids at the end-of-day school pick up. Unfortunately that day, the moment lasted a mere 30 seconds. Long enough for my daughter to give me a huge hug and show me her latest drawing.

Then, the whining started.

‘I don’t like Cheerios. I want crackers!’ Waaaaaaa!

‘I don’t want that song!. I want ‘the one.’ To which I gently responded, ‘Which one?’ ‘THE ONE!!!!! I WANT THE ONE!’ Waaaaaaa!

‘Stop talking Mommy. Stop breathing! I can hear you breathing!’ Waaaaaa!

I was desperate.

I didn’t have the crackers my 3-year old wanted. I had no clue which song she was talking about.

I needed to resume regular breathing or I would lose consciousness and the truck would careen into oncoming traffic.

I was trapped in the truck until we got home… held captive by a very cute, but incredibly hostile mutant being whose head was starting to spin around like a top.

My options were limited so I obsessively searched for something.. ANYTHING to de-escalate the thermo-nuclear war developing in the back seat.

toddler car tantrums

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And then I saw it.

Tucked behind the speed limit marker– a Blue Sign.

My eyes scanned the road to confirm that my semi-genius idea might actually work. Lo and behold– there were more.

With as much positive energy as I could muster, I interrupted my daughter’s screaming with an enthusiastic question:

“Hey! I need your help! Can you help me?!!! It is really important!!!!”

My daughter stopped screaming. I was cautiously optimistic.

Then came the hook: ” I need to find all the blue signs. Can you help me find all the blue signs?”

Before she had a chance to say “NO!” I shouted, “Look! There’s a blue sign! Awesome!”

She remained quiet. She was contemplating my offer.

About a minute passed and then I heard it– a tentative, quiet voice.

“There’s one! A blue sign! There’s another one! Look, Mommy! I see THREE blue signs!”

And for one absolutely perfect moment, peace had broken out in the mini-van.

Would you like to know a secret?

This little game has been saving car ride meltdowns ever since… for over 1 year!

toddler car tantrums

How does it work?

I absolutely love this parenting hack because it is so incredibly simple.

You don’t need any equipment AND (added bonus), you won’t be tempted to do anything that takes YOUR eyes off the road.

The details can easily be tweaked to the area you are driving in and the age of your child. I think this version would work great for kids age 2 or 2 1/2 through early age 4. Your toddler or preschooler needs to be able to recognize basic shapes or colors.

If your child is reading or can recognize letters you can tweak the game to be a bit more challenging for them.

Basically this is a low-stress version of ‘I Spy.’

For the area I live in, blue signs worked great because there are plenty of blue signs to keep my daughter engaged but not so many that it is too easy.

Other options could be:

  • yellow signs
  • white signs
  • circle signs
  • triangle signs

Critical Step: How you frame it

This step is probably even more important than the game itself. You have to sell it to your kid, while they are in the middle of a temper tantrum or meltdown. That requires some serious Mommy ninja moves. Here are some tactics I used:

  • Keep your voice happy and enthusiastic, but not overly excited.
  • Speak loudly enough to break your kid’s concentration and put a ‘crack’ in the tantrum.
  • Ask them for a favor. Yep, ask them to help you out. Most toddlers and preschoolers love being helpful. They love knowing they are doing something important. That was the hook for me… asking my daughter to help. Also, make it sound like this is the MOST IMPORTANT TASK THEY COULD EVER DO. Yes, you are exaggerating (only slightly… remember that headache), but your kid doesn’t know that.
  • Give them a quick win. Help them find success fast.. and be super enthusiastic about it.
  • Wait— let them figure out the game.
  • Smile— Once your toddler or preschooler catches on, you can pull this game out of your back pocket pretty much anytime your car ride even starts to become contentious.

Why Does It Work?

So, I will admit that this game kinda sorta flies in the face of some parenting advice that recommends you do not reward temper tantrums with attention. However, the idea of driving in the car without the screeching (unless, of course, I want to listen to Metallica), is also very appealing.

Something is bothering your child if they are throwing a fit. You may not be able to fix whatever is bothering them. However, you can help them get their big emotions under control. That is better for you AND that is MUCH better for them. Plus, this is more fun for everyone.

Dayna Abraham, the National Board Certified Educator and founder of Lemon-Lime Adventures, has written extensively about temper tantrums and how to effectively stop them and calm your child. She offers a FREE 10-day email course that will give you very practical calm down strategies you can use for your kids. Dayna talks about how to get these big emotions under control– it’s called self regulation and is a vital life skill for kids to learn.

Ultimately you are re-directing your child from a behavior that is not desirable to a behavior that is not only desirable, but fun. You are giving them permission to stop a power struggle and choose a choice that is probably a lot nicer than screaming.

Caveat: This game worked for me, when almost nothing else would. I hope it works for you, but ultimately you have to find a solution that fits your personality and your child’s personality. I am not a parenting expert at all… I am just an expert at parenting one very spirited 4-year old girl.

Other Strategies To Stop Car Tantrums You Could Try

If this little ‘Blue Sign’ game doesn’t work with your kids, there are other ideas you can try.

Megan Sheakoski of Coffee Cups and Crayons suggests trying bubbles. She contends that blowing bubbles in the car is one of her ninja parenting hacks.

Marnie Craycroft from Six Acre Wood borrows a fantastic suggestion that her own mother used: Just pull the car over, turn the engine off, and remain quiet and calm until your child calms down.

I would love to hear your ideas too! Do you have an amazing tip or game that works for you? Shoot me and email and I will add it to this post as an additional resource!

Thanks for reading and have a great day!

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