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MASFIC – Mothers Against Sibling Fighting In Cars

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MASFIC Trying To Eliminate Back Seat Sibling Rivalry

"What can I do to get my kids to stop fighting in the car? I know my yelling is wrong and they don’t listen any way, but I have no idea what else TO DO. HELP!"
– Frazzled mother of two, ages 3 and 5.

All Behaviour Serves a Purpose
Usually sibling fighting serves to get attention (albeit negative) from parents. Kids don’t mind negative attention if it is all they can get. It is like the old adage: bad press is better than no press.

Do other parents complain to you of their fighting when they are in their care? I’ll bet the answer is no. The fighting is for OUR benefit as parents! When we are out of the picture, it loses it purposefulness. That means children can decide to either fight or NOT fight. And it takes two to have a fight. Fighting is, in fact, an act of cooperation; it’s just that it is on the negative or "useless" side of life rather than the positive or "useful" side.


Eliminate the "mistaken approach"
If you want the fighting to disappear you have to make fights an ineffective way of getting attention. That means you must ignore them. That is hard while you are in a car, and I am sure that IS in fact why children chose the car as the ideal place to fight! They have a captive audience who can not HELP but give attention in the form of ineffective verbal corrections:

"Stop that" "You’re driving me crazy" "Enough I said. I have had enough!"

After all, if you weren’t busy saying those things you’d be free to talk to your spouse, talk on your cell phone, listen to the radio, or any other number of things besides paying attention to the children. Let’s face it – well behaved children are ignored! We figure they are set – so let’s do something else!

In fact – we train them: if they want us – just act up. We need to train them in the reverse: Give attention when they are acting the way that is appropriate, ignore them when they are not. They’ll quickly learn to come about in their strategy.

Firm and Friendly
The trick is to not cave in to the demand for undue attention while staying calm and aloof (I know this is the hard part – especially with fighting). You do not need to ignore the children, just their fighting. If you only step in and get involved in their fights when they are really intense or physical, then you are unknowingly teaching your child to fight louder, longer and harder to be effective!

So, ignore the fighting. 100%. Cold turkey.

Here is how:

Offer Choice
Mom: "It is not safe for me to drive with this noise and distraction. Can you two stop fighting or do I need to pull over?"

Tip – You only need to explain and offer choice the first time, all subsequent times if they start to fight simply pull over.

Watch the Feet Not the Mouth
Regardless of how the children answer your question ("We’ll stop fighting, honest" – kick, punch, poke) their real decision or intention is shown in their choice of behaviour not their words. Respond to what they do, not to what they say.

Follow Through – Action Not Words
If the children continue to fight then simply pull off the road way, put the car in park, pull out a book and start to read. This will relax you and it demonstrates that you are not paying attention. After all – when was the last time you had time to read. Relish the opportunity! If you look upset or concerned they’ll know you are paying attention and continue.

If things get too wild, you can read from outside the car.
Mom: "I’m gonna read on the grass here – let me know when you are ready to go again".

TIP: Don’t interfere with the learning by TALKING or EYEBALL ROLLING! This is not about you and your approval or disapproval. The lesson will be learned through the simple connection that when we fight – the car stops. Therefore to make the car go we need to co-operate. The children see they hold this power and mom is just following through on simple rules for social living in a respectful manner.

You should be having more joyful car trips shortly. So pack a book on your next trip and let me know how it goes!

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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5 Responses to “MASFIC – Mothers Against Sibling Fighting In Cars”

  1. Paula Klee

    Wow, it’s great to hear that there are some good solutions to siblings fighting in cars, I just never bothered getting my licence because I’m so afraid that my children will bicker and fight so badly, I’d be pulling the car over to stop them every 2km

  2. Pete

    Alyson, thanks for this article on car bickering. It’s a problem we’ve been trying to cope with for a while, and I’ve been able to use your advice with some success.
    Today while bringing the kids (4 yrs and 2.5 yrs) to preschool, a fight broke out in the back seat and I responded by pulling over as I have been doing lately. However, instead of them resolving the fight, my 4 yr old then removed his seatbelt (he’s in a booster seat) and began climbing all around the car, refusing to get back into his car seat. It became clear to me that we were involved in a power struggle, but, taken by surprise and in somewhat of a hurry to get to work, I resorted to forcing him back into his seat, kicking and screaming. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a more “democratic” way of handling the situation. Thanks!

  3. Alyson Schafer

    Hey Pete – nice job on pulling over and getting out. I agree with your assessment that it was a power struggle. The trick with those is “don’t fight – don’t win – don’t loose”. Hard to pull off, I know. I think you “won” and that is why it didn’t feel very democratic. I would repeat what you did, but simply stay out of the car longer. Wait until they are done crawling about and basically get bored of being pulled off the road. Yes, you maybe late once or twice but that is all, and they learn you won’t take the bait and get involved. Many happy car travels ahead if you can be late just a few times. Totally worth it!
    Let me and the other readers know how it goes!

  4. Lisa

    This is one of the major problems I have with my kids also. Almost every time we get in the car, the fighting starts immediately before the seat belts are even on! I have tried many techniques including threatening the take something away, yelling, asking nicely and getting out of the car and waiting. After reading your suggestion, I will try to follow your advice consistently. The problem that I often have is that we actually need to be somewhere and I have a hard time accepting that we will be late (Dr appt, school, etc…). Maybe if I build in some buffer time to allow for the waiting? How long should I expect to wait? 15 min? Sometimes they don’t actually want to go wherever we are going so I have a feeling I could be waiting a long time…

  5. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Lisa,
    Yes – you will be late. That can seem unbearable if you are a punctuality nut, but remember, “life happens”. People get flat tires, or lost, or forget something and have to turn around. You might be late, or miss am appt. It feels wrong – but it HAPPENS. It is NOT the end of the world. I agree – add buffer time. But, in the end if you are waiting 15minutes or 30 minutes and miss your dental appt – you STILL would have taught a great lesson. You only have to do this a few times, so practice on non-urgent appts so they are trained and co-operative when the more important appts are scheduled.


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