I recently became involved with this awesome guy who has two kids. His son who is 3 is a very sweet boy. But when we take car rides and he wakes up while in the car he is hysterical. I've heard of kids waking up scared but normally a few comforting words and the kids ok. With him he gets worse and won't go back to sleep. He will also kick and scream and hit anything nearby till we stop and take him out. It's bad. And it only happens if he wakes up in the car. Any advise??
Communication is always a good step.
This one seems pretty broad, but a 3 year old is old enough to explain what they don't like. Take some time at dinner, or night time talk to discuss what happened in the car. Was he scared, needed to pee, too hot, bad dream, didn't like where he was being taken? If he doesn't want to talk about it, leave it alone immediately and change the subject to something fun. (come back later from a different angle).
Is it a hysterical with fear, or anger, or neither? At another time, try just asking what his fears and angers might be.
I'm suspicious of being too hot, it's winter time now. Do you have him in lots of clothes and forget to notice that everyone else in the car has unzipped, but he was left sleeping. And maybe having a dream that gets him worked up in a sweat?
A key thing I note:
He does get mad if he's touched by any other kids when he is in this wake up stage and will hit them.
So touch and waking up are triggers. Does he have sensory issues with clothes in general? If touch and waking up are a bad combination, I can see how being strapped in a car seat can be nightmarish for him.
How is he when he wakes up in a crib or his toddler bed?
As far as what to do about it, I would try lots of encouragement with the best distraction you can come up with. A favorite toy or I'd even resort to TV.
Does he sleep for a shorter time in the car than at home? My daughter can only take a 1 sleep cycle (about 30 minutes) nap in the car. At home her naps are almost always at least 2 sleep cycles and usually longer. So when she wakes up in the car she is overtired. She cries her "overtired" cry, which is loud and very upset. But then she does calm down, though it usually takes time and, for her leaving her alone rather than trying to comfort her.
It sounds almost like night terrors, rather than difficulty waking up. Could it be that the terrors are triggered by a different sleeping position? (I personally usually get nightmares when I sleep on my back, so I am guessing it is a possibility.)
If that is the case, then simply avoiding sleeping while sitting up may be the one solution.
This occasionally happens to us as well. Most of the time, our daughter (3yrs) sleeps just fine in the car, but sometimes she wakes up crying/screaming. The culprit most of the times seems to be that she can't get comfortable or she's hot, (car seats are not known for their air flow.) In our case, we try to hold her hand to comfort her, and talk in a soothing tone. During the most recent crying jag, I had to get in the backseat with her and she played with my ear, (her soothing mechanism,) the rest of the way home.
Given that the child in question is three, you might want to check to see if he's ready for a booster seat. (I think 40lbs and 40inches tall is the recommendation.) If he's still in a regular car seat then he might have problems getting/staying comfortable.
Also, we put a small pillow in our car for when our daughter falls asleep - it helps keep her head from lolling around too much and possibly waking her up.
Some of my kids went through this as a stage in their life. There's little we could do, beyond stopping and getting them out, or letting them cry it out. Occasionally distraction would work (for trips longer than 45 minutes we may have a movie running), other times making sure they wake up completely helps, as they seemed to be in the state where they were awake, didn't want to be awake, and in a normal bed they would merely shift positions and go back to sleep. We try to keep a few things with us that they really like, which they rarely get to play with. If their unhappiness is lengthy, I might let him play with my cell phone, for instance. Getting to do something rare and fun often wakes them up enough to settle down.
They never wanted to talk to us about why they were unhappy, and if distraction didn't work and we couldn't stop, then letting them go through their little fit was what we did.
It is likely this is a stage and it will pass as they grow. It may be distressing for you, but if it's distracting for the driver you should stop and get them settled down before continuing the trip.