'Don't give kids sweets on long journeys if you want them to behave in the car'

23 August 2021, 10:10 | Updated: 23 August 2021, 10:56

Stressful car journeys have the potential to totally ruin a family holiday
Stressful car journeys have the potential to totally ruin a family holiday. Picture: Alamy
Heart reporter

By Heart reporter

Whether you're planning an epic car drive to a far off corner of the UK, heading to a destination an hour away, or stuck in hours of traffic, these expert tips will help keep things calm

As we enter the final stretch of the summer holidays, more and more families head out for a break - but having the kids fighting in the backseat can be enough to make mum and dad want to turn around and go home.

It's estimated a huge 30 MILLION Brits will take to the roads ahead of the bank holiday weekend, and that means long journeys get even longer due to the inevitable traffic and congestion.

New research by Car Shades found that 87 per cent of parents feel stressed before family drives even begin and nearly a third feel this ruins their whole holiday. Squabbling caused 45 per cent of respondents to feel extra pressure while behind the wheel.

The stats also revealed that it's not just the sound of screeching children that can send parents over the edge.

A huge 65 per cent admitted they feel stressed knowing their children could be bored, and 32 per cent of parents feel tense thinking their passengers need constant attention.

But it doesn't have to be this way, and Psychologist Michael Padraig Acton has shared his top five tips to make long journeys less fraught - and perhaps even enjoyable! - for the whole family.

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Some of them are pretty obvious - like making sure there's plenty to keep smaller passengers entertained - but some might surprise you.

He says that not only are sugary foods and drinks a no-no, but that parents shouldn't be afraid to pull over mid-journey and give their kids a stern talking to if their behaviour is really unacceptable...

Plan effectively

Make sure you have enough tech and entertainment for everyone
Make sure you have enough tech and entertainment for everyone. Picture: Alamy

Before setting off, make sure your child will be comfortable in the car, so make sure it's not too hot and that there are not surrounded by clutter.

Boredom generally triggers a child to become mischievous so make sure there is plenty for them to do on the journey.

Michael suggests bringing a selection of activities such as colouring books, magnetic board games, action figures and video games as well as playing games like I Spy. 

He said: “A road trip is a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t let children take control, spread activities out over the journey and change up when they get bored.”

Most importantly, avoid giving too many sweets and other foods that are high in sugar because this will lead to a sugar spike and over-excited children. 

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Manage your emotions

It's important to stay calm with other drivers, and everyone else in the car
It's important to stay calm with other drivers, and everyone else in the car. Picture: Alamy

No matter how much you want to honk and yell at other drivers, don't. Aggression behind the wheel contributes to an unpleasant atmosphere which children will often respond to by misbehaving.

Michael says that if a child begins to act up, it's crucial to use reasonable language when talking to them:

He said: “Avoid swearing or shouting as this usually intensifies and prolongs the situation."

Speak calmly


If a child’s behaviour begins to escalate, parents must speak calmly but firmly to the children.

If possible, the adult passenger should do the talking and refer to the driver’s needs for concentration.

Michael suggest trying phrases such as, “Remember, mummy needs to concentrate on driving so everyone has to be sensible when playing,” or “Distracting daddy can be dangerous so let’s keep our voices down.”

Pause the journey

If your children won't behave don't be afraid to pull over
If your children won't behave don't be afraid to pull over. Picture: Alamy


If talking calmly isn’t effective, then explain to children that if their behaviour doesn’t improve, you will have to stop the car. If the situation doesn’t get better, find a safe place to stop and follow through with this action.

This might seem drastic, but Michael says that most children will respond positively to this.

He said: "If there are still some issues, it might be worth taking a lengthy break and talking to your child about the reasons behind their behaviour. If they are fed, watered, comfortable and entertained, it could be that they are feeling unwell or are unhappy about something."

Give them a sense of control

Don't worry, this doesn't mean passing your child a map or asking them to take the wheel for a long, straight stretch of the M1.

Michael comments that some children require extra support when travelling so provide them with a ‘previewing’ strategy:

He said: “Give your child a high-level outline of the itinerary, breaking it down into a more detailed snapshot.

"Inform them how long you will be driving for, when and where you will take breaks, what the child will need to pack, what activities they can do to amuse themselves, what food and drink will be available and what behaviour is expected.”

Pre-empting as much of the journey as possible makes them feel more in control and they are less likely to become upset or distracted. If a child starts to show signs of distress, settle them by reeling off the preview again.