What should I do if my kid hates rear-facing and screams through every car trip? I’ll be a distracted driver, and that’s not safe either.
As a pediatrician, I can tell you that it is not developmentally appropriate for a toddler to want to sit happily in the car for long period of time, no matter which way they are facing. Toddlers are curious by nature and want to run around and explore their world, something which car seats (whether rear-facing or forward-facing) don't allow. But sometimes as parents we subconsciously encourage the very behavior we want to discourage. For example, when your child is screaming in the car, you probably give them more attention (telling them to be quiet is attention, albeit negative attention) than when they are playing quietly in the car. To your child to sit happily in his rear-facing car seat, you are going to need to put in a little effort, but I can guarantee that the pay off is worth it for both of you. Here are some suggestions; try whichever one or ones you think may work best with your child.
The first thing to understand is that young kids will work for attention—whether it is positive or negative attention—and they likely have trouble distinguishing between the two. First, you need to praise your child frequently for good behavior. If you are buckling your child in and he is cooperating nicely say, "Mommy is so proud of you for getting buckled like a big boy.” It is now two minutes into the car ride and he's still sitting nicely; yup, you guessed it, praise him again. Two minutes later, praise him yet again. Kids have very short attention spans, so the praise, especially in the beginning, needs to be very frequent. But what happens when he starts to scream (as he will invariably do)? First, stay calm. Your goal is to give him zero attention for his misbehavior; this means that you don't show him any facial expressions in reaction to it (typically people show an angry face or laugh, both of which encourage the child to continue screaming). Instead of asking or telling the child to be quiet you can either ignore them completely or, using a normal tone of voice, talk with them about something else (pretend that they aren't screaming and are acting normally).
Another way to praise the child for good behavior is using a sticker chart. Kids love visual reminders of their good behavior, and it encourages them to continue that behavior so they get another sticker. If your child often misbehaves when you are buckling them in, talk to them on the way to the car about the behavior you expect and the reward for such behavior (i.e. a sticker, or getting to read a story with you). If they behave well while you buckle them in, don't make them wait until the end of the car ride for a sticker, give them one then. If they also typically misbehave during the trip, talk to them on the way to the car about the behavior you expect, and give them a sticker at the end of the car trip as a reward.
Making things routine—and helping your child understand the steps to the routine—alleviates some of the anxiety associated with change. Picture books are a great way of teaching your child the rear-facing routine, while also making it fun. Most toddlers love reading books, especially ones about them! Here is an example of a story you can write with your child; you can even take your own photos to add to it. Print it out and read it with them as you go to the car and buckle them in.
Page 1: Mommy and I walk to the car.
Page 2: Mommy opens the car door.
Page 3: I climb into my seat like a big girl!
Page 4: Mommy puts the straps over my shoulders and over my hips.
Page 5: I help Mommy with the easy part (the chest clip).
Page 6: Mommy does the hard part (buckles between the legs).
Page 7: Mommy makes my straps snug so they give me a hug.
Page 8: Mommy gives me a high five and a hug.
Page 9: Mommy sits in her seat and wears her seat belt snug so it gives her a hug.
Page 10: Mommy starts the car—I like the sound of the engine!
Page 11: Off we go!
If your child has a favorite book or small toy, save it for the car. This way it makes them look forward to riding in their car seat, as they get to play with that toy or read that special book.