Whether we were headed to Cape Cod on the terror that is I-95, lost in downtown San Francisco or simply traveling an hour south to my grandparents’ house, one thing was certain: utter mayhem in the driver’s seat. A scream of "Take your @&^#% foot off the brake!" a loud smack of the steering wheel, a middle finger proudly waving to a slow-moving driver were all completely standard for my father behind the wheel.
My dad is a fun-loving goofball who rarely loses his temper. That’s what made his behind-the-wheel outbursts so traumatic for me. I’m a well-adjusted almost-adult who rarely curses and never yells, but I had to know: what happens to the rest of the kids like me?
Most parents can agree that a family trip on America’s highways usually provokes some road rage, but the consensus gets foggy when we consider the toll road rage has on kids.
Any type of negative outburst from the parent, whether shouting and cursing, banging on the steering wheel or driving recklessly, distracts the driver and increases the possibility of an accident. Not to mention that road rage adds tension to the ride, angering or embarrassing other adults in the car and frightening children, says Barbara Borden, a school psychologist in Lincolnshire.
Annie Alshuler, 19, grew up enduring many car rides with "The Mayor of Road Rage City"—the nickname she has fondly given her father. "As a kid, I was kind of scared when my dad would get angry on the road," she says. "But as I grew up, I kind of found humor in his little outbursts."
Not all children are so lucky.
According to Borden, screaming and yelling behind the wheel affects children immediately and in the long term. Generally, kids in the car with an angry parent are anxious and tense, not to mention that they’re fully exposed to an inappropriate model for handling conflict.
"Children who consistently experience their parents’ road rage can become withdrawn, underachievers in school and begin to demonstrate the same explosive behavior as their parent, such as when they can’t cope with teasing or other behaviors that anger them," Borden says. Parents should be on the lookout for Borden’s "stressor signs," such as changes in sleeping and eating habits, problems in school and behavior problems.
Why are some people more likely to lose control behind the wheel? Dr. Judy Kern, a Chicago psychiatrist, says this type of behavior stems from upbringing. If you exhibit signs of road rage, chances are your parents did as well. "Children mirror their parents’ behavior. If they saw their parents behaving in an uncontrolled manner in the car, they will behave the same way," Kern says.
Borden says she believes these kids may be less in control of their emotions later in life since they model their parents’ coping strategies.
An online parenting guide out from the University of Hawaii says children who grow up with parents who yell at home learn that yelling is the norm and they tune it out. Yet children who only hear yelling and cursing in the car are more likely to be negatively affected because it is not a familiar response, says Borden.
So the work you put into being on your best behavior at home is derailed if your temper comes out full force in the car.
If a problem with road rage persists despite efforts to calm down, Kern suggests getting therapy to see if there’s an underlying reason for the outbursts and to learn stress maintenance techniques. Borden recommends that the family become involved in group counseling in addition to anger management treatment for the offending parent.
But first, try to patch things up with your kids after a rough trip. Explain that you have a problem controlling your anger in stressful situations, that it’s not their fault, and if you’re in therapy, don’t hesitate to let them know. Owning up to your faults is what being a good role model is all about. Even though the kids know you aren’t driving appropriately, they will know you’re working on it and don’t mean to yell.
Yet in the end, actions speak louder than words—even loud curses—so if road rage becomes a chronic problem that cannot be cured with therapy, avoid long road trips, change travel times to avoid traffic backups or carpool to take the burden off.
Alshuler’s father never discussed his road rage, but she doesn’t think that hurt their relationship or her emotional development. As the years went by, Alshuler was able to soothe herself by relating the issue back to her dad’s personality. "I think the reason why my dad has road rage is because he’s just a stubborn, impatient person."
Unlike Alshuler, Borden says many kids can’t always place themselves outside the situation. Children sometimes think it’s their fault—especially if the family is stuck in traffic because the little ones held up the trip or they’re late for an event the kids needs to be at. Beware of inappropriately blaming your child. Her dawdling didn’t cause the accident a mile ahead that’s blocking traffic.
Pick your battles
It’s important to keep in mind that most drivers who are being aggressive or oblivious are just average adults who aren’t trying to provoke you. But the road is an important place to choose your course of action wisely when dealing with careless drivers. It’s always a good idea to err on the side of safety, especially if your family is in the car.
Though rare, there are occasional horror stories about car crashes due to reckless driving or fatal altercations on the side of the road. Beware of pulling off the highway to find a better route. If the area is unfamiliar to you, you’re likely to get lost, which only increases your aggravation. Chances are you’ll soon be stuck behind another slow-moving car that’s trying to do the same thing you were.
@$*&^$#! What a moron!
Take a breather
Well before road rage occurs, most people can tell if their stress levels are inching toward the breaking point.
Shortness of breath, a rapid heartbeat or pronounced sweating are clear anxiety symptoms and a sign that a regrettable outburst could be on the way, says Dr. Judy Kern, a Chicago psychiatrist. She advises that the driver take steps to calm down before the physical symptoms turn into scary road rage.
• Don’t underestimate the power of deep breathing. A few long breaths can work wonders in calming you down.
• Regain your perspective. Focus on the issue at hand. Will being five minutes late cost you your job? Is exploding into a cloud of swear words worth the embarrassment you’ll feel when your little one repeats them in public?
• Take the pressure off. Use the bumper-to-bumper time to reconnect with your family. Rather than scream at a situation you can’t change, entertain your family with a joke or story.
• Pump it up. Pop in a favorite CD, whether it’s relaxing classical or uplifting pop, to ease your sour mood.
• Actively engage your kids. If they ask why you’re stuck, explain that there’s probably an accident or construction up ahead. Point out drivers who are maneuvering dangerously. Seeing it from their eyes can help you calm down.
If these tips don’t work:
• Pull into the nearest rest stop. Stretching your legs, grabbing coffee and enjoying some fresh air may help.
• If possible, switch drivers. Let your spouse take the wheel for a bit, and rest your eyes or turn around to focus on the kids.
• Reflect later that night. The inability to keep your cool in tense situations is amplified by outside stressors. Take some time and figure out what else in your life—whether it’s work, financial or relationship stress—is on your mind.
Allison Markowitz is an intern at Chicago Parent. She is a junior at the Medill School of Journalism.