Ending Car Seat Power Struggles for GOOD!

"How can I get my child to get in the car seat without a power struggle every. single. time?"

Ah, the car seat power struggle. Phew! This can be a big one because it is absolutely a non-negotiable, and kids KNOW it. It’s basically their job in the early years to test and experiment with limits and power and things like getting buckled into a car seat are the perfect opportunity for children to assert their will and autonomy. Plus, there is the additional bonus that it usually ruffles parents’ feathers, which makes it even more attractive and interesting to our budding scientists. 

**I hope you all know that I say these things in jest, a bit tongue in cheek, if you will. I have the deepest respect for children and the amazing work they are doing when they are testing and pushing and experimenting and observing their effect on us.**

Well, first, the following two posts by Janet Lansbury and Robin of Visible Child should be your first stop for learning to handle these things with respect and playfulness. If these don't work then the method outlined below is the one I use with my private coaching clients.



Ok, so parents in my Balanced Parenting Group on Facebook (click to join!) have been asking me to post my method for handling car seat power struggles. Well, here it is!

I have used this with both of my children when they entered the car seat resistance stage at about 10 mo. I also coached my husband through it with both kids at about 15 months. (They would sit and get buckled for me with no resistance, but with my husband they would climb around the car, refuse to sit down or turn around, etc.). Plus countless clients and parents on forums on Facebook. But it takes preparation and commitment!

The key part here is to stay calm, collected, confident, and connected the entire time.

1.     Choose a day when everyone is in a good mood, when you’ve had a chance to do some self care, and where you have no where pressing to be, no time constraints, and have no other children to care for.

2.     Take your little one to the car, or let them walk if they are walking. Before you place them in the seat you calmly say, “It’s time to get buckled into your car seat. We are going to do this a little bit differently today. I am going to place you in your seat (or “you are going to get into your seat”) and I will buckle you. I won’t let you do xyz (the things they normally do). Are you ready? Ok. Please sit in your seat so I can buckle you.” (Say this with completely calm, confidence and without ending it with a question. Make sure it is a statement).

a. If they refuse to get in on their own, let them know that you will help them in.

3.     This is when the struggling tends to start. If they struggle before you can get them in their seat, stop trying to put them in, hold them calmly and say, “I can wait. Let me know when you’re ready to get in your seat.” And then you wait. You channel divine levels of patience and you wait. You don’t let them down. You don’t let them play with your hair or your sunglasses, you don’t let them ruffle your feathers or make you frustrated. You keep them focused on the task at hand, getting into the car seat, with complete confidence that they can absolutely 100% do this. You are essentially taking the “struggle” out of this power struggle.

4.     When they have stopped struggling or indicate readiness to get in the seat, you put them in. Now is the time when the squirming, escape attempts, turning around to stand in the seat or climb into the front seat start. And this is when you repeat the step above.

a. For younger babies, who aren’t actively climbing out of the car seat you can take them back out and start over with, “I can wait. Let me know when you are ready to get into your seat.”

b. If they are attempting to stand or climb around the car, you gently restrain them, and bring them back to the task at hand: getting buckled. You do NOT let them climb out of the seat and anytime they stand up or turn around you help them sit back down. All while saying, “I won’t let you do xyz. It is time to get buckled. I will help you sit down. Let me know when you are ready, I can wait. No, I won’t let you play. It is not time to play, it is time to get buckled.”

  • If the struggle escalates, take them out and repeat as above.
  • You are setting a firm, compassionate, loving limit. You are calm and collected but you do not allow any of the things they normally do to avoid the car seat. You keep their attention focused on the task.
  • You are NOT letting them climb around the car, jump in their seat, etc. while you wait for them to sit down. You are physically preventing that behavior. This is not the time to be permissive. They need a clear signal from you that this is different.

5.     Repeat as many times as necessary. I have rarely heard of this lasting longer than 30 min (I have lost count of how many parents I’ve coached through this, the longest it lasted was 45 min), but the reason you do this on a good day, where you have no where to be, no time constraints, with a “full cup”, is so that you actually CAN wait for them to be ready, and make the choice themselves. This isn’t about using force, it’s about giving them the time and space and opportunity to be cooperative. To trust that, at the end of the day, they WANT to cooperate with you, even your very strong willed children.

6.     In the midst of this, you’ll likely need to validate and empathize. You can do so with compassion and authenticity, while still holding the limit firm. “You don’t want to get in the car seat. It’s uncomfortable, I know. Hmmm.” Pause… “Let me know when you’re ready…”  Etc.

7.     Once they are buckled you can say, “Great! You’re all buckled! Now we can go!”

8.     And now close the door, take a deep breath, mentally pat yourself on the back, hop in the drivers seat and go somewhere fun, even if it’s just the Starbucks drive-through!

9.     Repeat as needed. It will likely never take as long as it did the first time, and most families I work with tell me they only need to do this once or twice.

The same process and principles apply for a host of situations, including diaper changes with squiggly, squirming, escape artist babies. *wink*