Ask Dr. Brandy

Ask Dr. Brandy1

Dear Dr. Brandy,

How do you get your child to stay seated in his seat belt? I have a 5 year old that refuses to stay buckled up in the car. We’ve tried everything we can think of, and nothing seems to help… he keeps jumping out of his car seat and unbuckling himself while I am driving. A police officer witnessed this happen once and gave my son a nice long talk about how important it is to wear a seatbelt—this helped for a few weeks but has now worn off. Any suggestions?


I imagine that this has been a very stressful issue for you and your family! You’re not only dealing with safety issues for your child, but also having to engage in a battle of wills over a simple daily task… and that is draining. With an issue like this one, my first thought is to determine whether or not this is an isolated incident. Is this the only issue you find unmanageable with your child, or is this part of a pattern that you are living day in and day out? Many times, parents aren’t sure when to reach out for help, and they feel like they should be able to handle whatever issue is at hand. If the issue you are struggling with is causing you or another family member distress and if the issue is impacting your ability to live your daily life – then that is a good indication that you might need some outside help. Counseling or family therapy can be very useful for both parents and children, and many issues like this can be resolved in a short amount of time.  A counselor can also help you determine and address whether this issue might be related to a specific condition or special need.  An example of this might be a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). One symptom of SPD can include being hypersensitive to and defensive of tactile sensations.  Many parents of children with SPD find themselves in a similar position, when it comes to seatbelts.  A counselor would use specific therapies to help them adjust to tactile overstimulation.  Therefore, if your child needs services (such as mental health services, speech therapy or tutoring), a counselor should be able to provide you with advice and local resources.

But, lets assume your escape artist’s behavior isn’t related to any special needs – and is more related to the issue of behavioral management.  To address the seatbelt problem, I would encourage you to use some positive reinforcement and see how your child reacts. There are many ways that you can do this, such as a “star chart.” Star charts can be a very effective way of encouraging positive behaviors, because it helps the child build on small successes while working toward the bigger goal. Your bigger goal: My child always has a seatbelt on when we are in the car. Sounds kind of overwhelming, right? If we could do that, we wouldn’t have a problem in the first place. Well, that’s why it is the bigger goal. Let’s break it down into smaller goals to get the ball rolling.

First, have a conversation with your child about wearing his seatbelt. This conversation should take place when both you and the child are calm (and preferably in good moods!). Talk about what its like in the car, and what happens when he unbuckles his seatbelt. Can he tell when he is feeling like he wants to climb out of his seat (and if he can’t tell when it is about to happen, can you?) He may not have a good answer as to why he unbuckles—that’s ok. If he can start to identify the times that he feels like he wants to unbuckle the seatbelt, this will be even more helpful. During this conversation, make your wishes known to your child. Talk about why we wear seatbelts and how it keeps us safe. Then, introduce your child to the star chart. Let him color the star chart or design it how he would like (we want him to be excited about it and taking ownership of his goal). Explain to your child that this is a goal you’re going to work on together, and that he will get a star (or sticker) every time he stays buckled in the car. The sticker that your child gets for the star chart should be something he likes already (this is a mini-reward in and of itself). Once your child gets a certain amount of stickers, then he gets a bigger reward. The bigger reward will be the main motivator at the beginning of this process—and can be anything that is a special treat for your child. You might let your child pick what movie you see as a family that weekend, what you eat for dinner, or they can work for a new toy or dessert.

Start small in terms of your expectations and build on small successes. If you have a feeling your child won’t make it more than two trips in a row without unbuckling the seatbelt, then make your first goal two times in a row. If you child easily does two trips in a row to get the reward, then start adding more trips before the reward is earned (2 in a row, then 5 in a row, and so forth). As you start this process, you will have to take the lead with the star chart—but it probably won’t be long before your child takes the initiative himself. Make sure you are consistent with the stickers—always have them on hand and make it a point of every car trip. The star chart itself can be a good topic of conversation for improving behavior as well—ask your child questions about his chart, and you can use it to redirect his attention if you feel like he’s starting to act up. You can say something as trivial as “Hmm… I wonder what sticker you will get next for the star chart! What sticker will it be next to?” or “Hey, it sounds like you’re getting worked up back there… lets calm down and take some deep breaths. Can you count the stickers on your chart as we take deep breaths? Count with me…”

Eventually, it will get easier and easier for your child to accomplish the small goals and you’ll see more consistency with staying seated in the car. Your need for the star chart may fall away, but finishing it can be a great way to celebrate with your child—you’ve both done hard work and accomplished something important!

Here are some chart examples you might wish to utilize:

seat belt (***Click the link for a Seat Belt Chart in PDF format)


Below are some alternative strategies you might also consider.  After all, you know your child best – and you might need more than one strategy!

1. Explain that seatbelts are non-negotiable and are required to go anywhere in the car.  Logically explain that if he doesn’t want to wear his seatbelt, then you won’t be able to go anywhere. Plan your next outing to somewhere ambiguous, (perhaps to the store to pick up a few things) – but plan your trip where the traffic won’t be hectic and can support your need to pull to the side of the road quickly.  You should probably plan for this outing to fail.  Get in car and go, adjusting your mirror so you can see him.  As soon as he touches the seatbelt to open it, pull over, stop the car and…. sit.  Explain that you can’t drive until his seat belt is on, but don’t bargain, plead or bribe.  Simply put yourself on “broken record” mode and say only:  “I can’t drive without your seat belt on. This can be a quick trip or a long one, depending on how quickly you follow the rules.” Begin driving only when the seatbelt has been properly utilized.  If you have to abandon this trip due to non-compliance, turn around and drive home (but only progressing when his seatbelt is on and parroting the same language as above).  Next time, plan a playdate or something fun.  Implement the same approach as above on the way to the event.  It’ll be an interesting experiment to see if he abides the safety measures when you’re on your way to something fun vs. a more mundane excursion.  Missing a playdate or fun experience may reinforce that seatbelts are more important.  If your child remains in control on fun outings but not errands, plan errands to continue reinforcing your message.  Repeat as necessary but ultimately knowing it may fail for a few trips. You may also have to consider having him remain home with a parent or sitter, instead of tagging along on errands in the future.  Once he knows you are absolutely SERIOUS about the consequences… He’ll get it.

2. “Do Kangaroos Wear Seatbelts” is a good book for Toddlers and Preschoolers about the importance of wearing a seatbelt.  It’s a perfect read for the pell-mell toddler thru six year old, who may be frustrated by the safety measures imposed by loving adults.  Use the book to open up discussions about seatbelt use, including why you insist he abide by this important rule.

3.  Do you have activities available to the child to focus on in the car?  Consider small toys, a snack, or even this resource the state of Alabama puts out regarding seatbelt safety:  Coloring these pages would keep the non-reader busy.  You can promise to read the words on the coloring pages upon arrival to your destination.  This resource takes a no-nonsense approach to teaching children why seatbelt safety is a requirement and not a choice.

4.  Many parents invent and sing a seatbelt song whenever they get into a car.  Sometimes a little silliness incents easy compliance. To the tune of “Star Wars” sing “Buckle your seatbelt, buckle your seatbelt, buckle your seatbelt, when you get in the car.”  Other parents sing a truly annoying tune and only cease when it’s been accomplished: “Put your seatbelt on…put your seatbelt on… I’ll stop singing this tune when you put your seatbelt on… (repeat)”

5.  Finally, wear your seat belt correctly every time you are in a car.  We all know that children learn best from adult role models.  You should also make sure that everyone sits upright when using seat belts.  Never let children lean against windows or doors, or lie down.  Never put the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back.  Since your child is fighting basic seatbelt safety, stick firm to all of these boundaries and never waver.