By John Townsend, Ph.D.
Nothing symbolizes the developing freedom of your teen more than having a driver’s license. The license is one of the last steps before ultimate autonomy and the new responsibilities and opportunities awaiting your almost young adult. It is something your adolescent has dreamed about and waited for.
This new freedom is also a reality that happens in real time. When our boys received their driver’s licenses, they were gone from home much more often. They took themselves to school, sporting events and social gatherings. My wife, Barbi, and I certainly missed them, but we were also happy that they were spreading their wings before their final launch into adulthood.
It’s also a stage that brings risk. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, and they account for 40 percent of all teen deaths. So there is cause not only for parental support but also for some healthy guidance. Here are the most important tips to assist you:
Be what you want them to be. Nothing causes a teen to ignore a parent like one who says one thing and does another. Parents need to model the behaviors they want their teens to have. If you are texting while driving, speeding, tailgating, changing lanes without signaling or not coming to full stops, your teen is recording that info. If you don’t show that you understand driving regulations, your teen is not likely to listen to your advice.
Two things are important here. First, monitor your driving habits and get them in line. We all use some wiggle room with these rules, but abide by the book for your teen’s sake. Secondly, get a copy of the regulations from your DMV and review them with your adolescent. By doing so, you are showing that you take driving seriously.
Ride with them. During drivers training, and for the year thereafter, be a passenger when your adolescent is behind the wheel. Try to do it two to three times a week, mainly during short trips of less than 5 miles. Then, if all is well, move to once a week after licensure. If your teen asks why, say you just want to see how the skills are developing. Do a lot of praising when it is deserved, and gently point out behaviors, in the moment, that need to change. Keep the praising more frequent than the pointing out, however, as otherwise you run the risk of being tuned out.
Set age- and maturity-appropriate rules for driving. Find out DMV rules on teen driving, such as night driving, passenger limits and curfew times. Write these down and place in a visible area in the house, so all of you understand them. Also include your “non-negotiable” rules such as no drinking and no texting while driving. I added “maturity-appropriate” here because your teen needs to be 16 years old not only chronologically but also emotionally. If your teen exhibits poor judgment, impulsivity or dishonesty, driving should be delayed until more maturity is achieved. After all, driving is a privilege, not a right.
Responsible kids should have all of the freedoms of any normal, healthy teen. But set reasonable consequences for bad driving behavior, and make sure those are written down, too. Most of all, enforce consequences consistently. Kids are sort of on an “autonomy exhilaration” phase when they start driving. Parents’ jobs are to keep them grounded (literally and figuratively) by following up with consequences if they are being reckless or immature.
Make sure the car is a safe one. Sometimes teens drive the family car, and sometimes parents will provide them with one of their own, depending on the family’s finances and priorities. If a family car is to be used, take it to a mechanic you trust and explain that you have a new driver and it needs to be evaluated for safety more than usual. Even though your adolescent’s hand-eye coordination is superior to yours, your judgment is superior, so safety is the top consideration for the car.
If you want your teen to have his or her own car, the same safety inspection applies. Also, make sure your teen pays some significant portion, if not all, of the cost of the car and its maintenance. Let teens know years ahead of time what the projected costs of driving will be so they can start saving allowance money and finding jobs. I have heard over and over again from individuals that requiring teens to invest their own money in a car has paid dividends. This is a great character builder.
As ever, keep your head, and keep the conversations going. You’ll get through the “DL” phase! Best to you.