Of all the milestones that teenagers anticipate, the prospect of their own driver’s license is the one that strikes fear into the heart of most parents. The daredevil teen driver of our popular imagination is front and center, often for good reason. What are we parents afraid of? That’s easy: the idea of undeveloped judgment behind the wheel of a two-ton projectile.
But some teenagers of driving age defy the stereotype. A growing number of teens don’t look forward to getting their license at all.
Learning to drive can be scary. Teens may be afraid to drive for a variety of reasons, and the fear can get in the way of even the best driving instruction.
How can you teach a scared teenager to drive a car?
- Understand the fear to detect the origin.
Slowly increase familiarity with the idea of driving.
Decrease anxiety through practice, reinforcement and small milestones.
Manage stress before, during and after driving practice.
Work with a driving school.
If all else fails, consult a counselor who specializes in phobias.
1. Understand the Fear
Before you pick up the car keys, reflect on your teen’s approach to learning new things. You know your teen best; how have they approached learning new life-changing skills in the past? Learning how to cook, to build a campfire and caring for small children all give teens real responsibility that can help predict how they’ll handle driving.
Talk to your teen about the origin of the fear. This will help you to decide how best to help.
** If your teen seems to have a serious, debilitating phobia of driving, it’s best to consult a mental health professional who specializes in treating phobias before learning how to drive. **
Fear of driving can stem from different experiences. It may originate from a past trauma of experiencing or witnessing an accident. Dr. Fredric Neuman, Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Clinic, says that a fear of driving may be an expression of another bigger fear such as agoraphobia. Anxiety about driving is called vehohobia.
Here are some other things to consider before you begin:
Is your Teen Perceiving the Risks Accurately?
We want to reassure an anxious teen, yet not downplay the very real risks of driving a car. According to the Centers for Disease Control, new drivers between the ages of 16-19 are more likely to be involved in a fatal accident. Driving laws in every state have evolved into something called a graduated license (granting driving privileges in steps) to minimize accidents caused by inexperience in new drivers.
But there’s a possible advantage to a teen with driving anxiety. An anxious teen may be a more careful teen, understanding the great responsibility that a driver assumes in getting behind the wheel. And a more gradual increase in exposure to driving instruction may help to solidify a base of skills.
Careful driving pays off. With every year of driving, continued practice and preparation, the risks to new drivers drop. There are concrete strategies at every stage to minimize the likelihood of a crash.
Ask Your Teen to Focus on “The Eight Danger Zones” – according to the CDC, your teen’s road risk can be lowered with attention to safety guidelines, especially involving the most common reasons for teen crashes:
- Driver inexperience
- Driving with teen passengers
- Nighttime driving
- Not using seat belts
- Distracted driving
- Drowsy driving
- Reckless driving
- Impaired driving
Your teen’s understanding of the Danger Zones can help to reassure over time that she has some control over the risks in driving. The CDC created a Parent-Teen Driving Agreement to help avoid the Danger Zones and keep them active in your conversations.
On the other hand, if your teen has a serious and persistent anxiety about driving that doesn’t decrease over time and exposure, don’t push to get the driver’s license too soon. The possibility of becoming a licensed driver doesn’t expire, and your teen may just need an additional year or two of maturity before he’ll be ready.
2. Increase familiarity with the idea of driving
An Expert’s Advice: Desensitize the Fear Response to the Situation
Neuman offers general advice about overcoming fears: “Start off with this idea: certain fears are reasonable, others are exaggerated. In both cases, it is a sensible strategy to confront those fears”.
He goes on to urge those with fears and full-blown phobias to take an incremental approach to face anxieties. By using a gradual sequence to keep putting yourself in a feared situation, the small steps will eventually lead you to greater comfort.
Here are some ideas that may help teens conquer a fear of driving over the span of weeks or months:
At the very beginning of driving instruction, ask your teen to visualize a detailed sequence that they’ll follow once they have the keys in hand. This can include a visual inspection of the tires, noting any obstacles around the car, and a plan to maneuver out of the parking spot safely.
Ask your teen to progress in their mind to leaving the driveway and turning onto a little-traveled road to arrive at an empty parking lot. What will they see and hear? How will their hands be positioned on the wheel? How will they be tracking obstacles with their eyes on all sides of the car? How will they move the steering wheel to keep the vehicle on course? How hard will they need to push the accelerator and the brakes? Next, imagine the same sequence on a secondary road with light traffic.
When I learned to drive, my dad encouraged me to imagine the many hazards I was likely to encounter.
For example, when you see a ball roll into the road, expect that a kid follows right after it. Stop the car immediately and wait for that kid.
When you see a flashing light behind you, pull over as soon as it is safe to stop.
Model and Talk
Are teens on their phones while you drive them from place to place? If so, they’re missing out on observing real-world driving instruction with every ride. Ask them to focus on the road with you and observe how you handle changing situations. Even if it feels silly, talk out loud and describe some of the dozens of driving decisions that you make with every passing mile.
Here’s a strategy that may boost their engagement if you can stomach a critique of your own driving: Ask them if they agree with the choices that you make and why it’s effective/important to safe driving (or not). If they disagree, what they would do instead? This is a good way to gauge how much knowledge they already have about driving and correct any misperceptions.
3. Decrease anxiety through practice, reinforcement and small milestones.
Simulate Driving in Traffic
Visualization and modeling are a great way to help anyone learn a new skill, but the best teacher is still experience. Luckily for a nervous teen, some driving experience can be gained without the risk by working in a simulation of real-life driving situations.
Simulations can allow a tentative driver to advance level by level, helping to increase familiarity and reduce anxiety. Many driver education companies offer 3D simulations as a standard teaching tool. They can be effective in improving response time to random variables and beginning a teen’s orientation in driving in different types of
weather. This type of training is so effective in helping to reduce accidents that all UPS drivers begin their training in a virtual road environment before entering that iconic brown truck.
If your teen is easily rattled by quickly changing variables in the simulation games, take it slow while still progressing further.
Ready to Take it to the Tarmac? Master the Basics First, Then Add Obstacles
After he’s mastered the game, get the learner’s permit and take the practice to an empty parking lot.
An empty parking lot is a good place to master basics like these:
- Visual check of the outside of car – tires, ensure that mirrors and windows are clear
- Adjust the seat to reach pedals; adjust mirrors to minimize blind spot; understand the functioning of all controls; adjust seat belt, steering wheel; understand what every dial and button does on the dashboard.
Create a course using cones and/or cardboard boxes in an empty parking lot so he has practice maneuvering the size and weight of a car at low speeds before taking it into real traffic.
Expect to spend a chunk of time on starting, stopping, turning and backing up. Allow your young driver to focus his or her full attention in these exploratory maneuvers.
Whenever possible, each parking lot or back road driving session can emphasize one or two main goals. Feedback can focus on the degree of progress toward those goals while still following all the rules of the road. For example, maintaining a constant rate of speed appropriate to the conditions and observing the speed limit can be one goal. Using mirrors to scan all sides of the car for obstacles can be a second.
As your driver progresses, you can add in stopping and starting smoothly, keeping to one lane, backing up safely, executing a three-point turn and others. With every practice session, increase the variety and challenge slightly. Use praise and calm feedback.
Here’s a checklist of beginner driving skills to help keep you and your teen on track.
4. Manage stress before, during and after driving practice.
Focus on Relaxation
At the risk of stating the obvious, driving can be extremely stressful for a teen with anxiety. Yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises before and/or after a driving session have all been shown to improve performance and lessen the fear. You can do this yourself with your teen or sign them up for stress management classes. Paula Davis-Laack, author of the Psychology Today series, Pressure Proof, writes that teens are under more pressure than ever before. They also typically take on a lot at school with activities and sports without predicting the actual cost of the stress to their mental health. To help them cope with the demands, she outlines some concrete strategies to help teens manage pressure in this post.
Calm and Patience
Whether grounded in reality or not, all fears are emotional, and you can do a lot to support your teenager is getting over the fear by being patient and supportive.
Give clear directions in advance of the action: There will be a traffic light coming up in half a mile; as we get close to it you can put on your directional signal and take a right-hand turn at the light.
Mistakes will happen. When I learned to drive, it was on a temperamental 4-on-the-floor Dodge Colt. My first foray onto the main roads in the center of town happened to be right after a snowfall and the road was full of slush. As my hands gripped the wheel at the red light, I remember thinking, So that’s what they mean by white knuckles. I hadn’t mastered the sensitive clutch yet. Even on a back road in dry conditions, I had trouble easing from the clutch to gas without stalling. I’ll never forget the panic of stalling again and again through 3 red lights while a line of outraged commuters honked behind me.
Some of your teen’s anxiety may not be about the dangers of driving, but from the fear of doing the wrong thing or feeling humiliated. Reassure your emerging driver that mistakes are expected when learning any new skill; repeated and sustained practice will help reduce the mistakes.
5. Work with a Driving School
Sometimes the best approach to help a teen with anxiety learn to drive is with professional driving support. This kind of intervention is especially powerful if you’re nervous yourself about your teen’s driving or if the tension between you is ramping up. Additional pressure will get in the way of learning.
A professional driving instructor will offer a methodical, objective plan which covers all the bases. Programs vary, from hybrid driving instruction which begins online and continues in person, or as a comprehensive one-to-one course.
6. If all else fails, consult a counselor who specializes in phobias.
Likewise, a counselor can provide short- or long-term help to get over a phobia or just give some extra support. For those persistent fears, especially those based on a past traumatic experience like an accident, this might be the best option. A therapist can guide your teen through formal exposure therapy to desensitize emotional triggers of anxiety related to the event.
If your teen is not required to drive by personal or family needs, there’s always the option to wait to learn until a time when they may feel more prepared.
Teaching a scared teenager to drive requires patience and communication. It’s important to remember that just as children develop on different timetables, teens may be ready to drive at different ages. Give your teen opportunities and support, but let them initiate the process of learning to drive. You can use the tips here to slowly ease your teen past the fear, and it all starts with just one step.