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Teaching Your Teenager to Drive

What to Do and What to Expect

Teaching your teen to drive requires considerable patience, empathy, and the knowledge of what is needed to best prepare her to become a skilled, responsible driver. Many parents understandably approach this task with trepidation and high anxiety. The following suggestions, facts, and tips will help you know what to do and what to expect when you and your teen put the rubber to the road.

  • Although many kids still take some formal driver-education training before they get their driver's license, the most influential training they receive comes from observing their parents' behind-the-wheel skills, judgment, and behavior.

  • Motor vehicle accidents are the primary cause of death among our nation's teens, killing 5,000 youngsters each year. This fact alone suggests that parents need to establish clear and firm conditions, limits, and rules regarding their teens' obtaining their licenses.

    Veteran driver-education instructors usually recommend at least 40 hours of supervised driving (most states require only 6) on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of situations (nighttime driving, rush hour driving, driving in the rain and snow, etc.).

  • Once you have told your teen that you will allow her to begin learning to drive, let her be the one to take the initiative to get the driver-education ball rolling. If your teen is not driving you crazy about teaching her to drive, she's probably too nervous to begin the process. Don't bring up the question of her anxiety. Just let her know you're ready to begin when she's ready.

  • If you are going to be your teen's driving coach/instructor, it's essential that you both know what to expect from each other before you get in the car together. It's always best for your child to know beforehand where you're taking him and what you'll be working on: "Today we're going on Route 128 during rush hour to practice high-speed driving, changing lanes and getting on and off exit ramps."

  • A teenager's physical dexterity and reflexes are finely tuned at this stage of his psychomotor development. Parents can see and be comforted by their child's improving physical skills behind the wheel.

    Unfortunately, teenagers are not so mature in their psychological stages of development, where they feel invincible, act impulsively, and are given to risk-taking. (Read Caution: Teen at the Wheel.) How is you teen's day-to-day behavior? How does she handle frustration? Do you always have to tell him to fasten his seatbelt?

Parents need to ask questions like these to give themselves an idea of how ready their kids are to drive safely and responsibly.

You must stand firm in refusing to let your child obtain a learner's permit if he is exhibiting worrisome, dangerous behaviors or if he otherwise indicates that he is not ready emotionally to drive.

  • Here are some tips for creating a comfortable parent/child learning environment in the car:
    1. Don't talk down to your teen or treat him like a little kid when you're coaching him. Avoid negative character comments: "You're a dangerous driver. You're distracted too easily." Praise specific progress and improvement, while offering non-judgmental, optimistic encouraging words: "You're remembering your directional signals almost every time now. Pretty soon you'll do it automatically all the time, without even thinking."
    2. Your comments should make your teen more aware, rather than feel shamed or judged. Instead of yelling, "You're going to get us a speeding ticket!" you might calmly ask, "What's the speed limit on this road?"
    3. Don't use instructional time in the car to discipline your teen about other matters ("Why didn't you clean up the family room last night like you were supposed to?"). Your budding driver will feel badgered and become distracted by such comments. Keep the conversation light and chatty.

  • It's a rare parent who can teach his teen to drive without experiencing some anxiety. If you can't keep your anxiety in check and it's turning the teaching experience into a tension-filled meltdown zone, do your child and yourself a favor and hand over the teacher's role to another family member, a trusted adult, or a professional driving instructor who is more suited temperamentally for this important task. Acknowledge feeling too nervous to be a good teacher and don't blame your teen for your anxiety.

Read Carleton Kendrick's bio.

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