Your teen has reached the legal driving age in your state, but still you wonder: Is your teenager ready to drive? Teens, after all, are known for risk-taking. They text and drive, even though they’ve been warned against such behavior a hundred times. Not to mention, teens are susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, and you definitely don’t want them behind the wheel after a night of partying with their friends.
Whether a teen is ready to drive is an excellent question that every parent should be asking. Drivers between the ages of 15 and 25 account for just about half of the more than one million deaths worldwide, on the road each year, according to the World Health Organization. That makes tragic sense. Aside from the raging hormones and risk-taking predilection, young drivers are also new drivers, inexperienced at the wheel, and unused to assessing road conditions. Which makes them vulnerable, accident-prone, and a danger to others.
That being the case, how should parents know when their teens are ready to drive: ready to be put behind the wheel and unleashed on the highway? Grichell Pelizzari, a licensed marriage and family therapist with specialized training and experience in trauma, child and adolescent counseling from Thriveworks in Pflugerville, Texas says there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for when a teenager is ready to drive. “Each child is different and will be ready at different times,” says Pelizzari. “The key to assessing if a teenager is ready to drive is how they demonstrate responsibility and maturity. The teenage years are a period where developmentally, the executive functioning center is not fully developed. That means that a teenager’s impulse control, logical reasoning, and decision-making are still under construction.”
First Time Drivers
Pelizzari suggests that parents think about how their teens cope in stressful situations on the way to deciding whether an adolescent is ready to drive. “Driving can be an overwhelming experience, and then you throw in added stressors like friends and phones. Parents need to assess their child’s ability to handle high-stress situations and make good decisions. Teenagers that can acknowledge risks versus rewards tend to engage in less risk-taking behaviors, which is very important for first-time drivers.”
What are the hallmarks that tell parents a teenager is ready to drive? “Teenagers are ready to drive when they can make responsible choices; with friends, school, and home. Poor choices such as difficulty with authority, or drug or alcohol use, will translate into poor choices while driving. Driving is a privilege. Teenagers should not be given the privilege to drive until they demonstrate a positive pattern of decision-making,” says Pelizzari.
Dr. Kate Monahan works with families and teens and is an expert in teen risk-taking. Monahan says the trick to ensuring teens are ready to drive is to work toward the goal over a period of years. “All teenagers are risk takers. It’s a normal part of the neurological development of the adolescent years. Knowing this, it’s important that parents support their teen in making healthy decisions. Parents can do this by gradually giving their teen responsibilities, years before the potential driver’s license.”
Getting Teens Ready to Drive
Doing things gradually, says Dr. Kate, extends to the process of teaching teens how to drive, as well as setting them free to drive on their own. “The best strategy to keep teens safe in the car is to gradually transfer the responsibility of driving. All states have Graduated Driver License programs, where the goal is to slowly give more teens more independent driving. But, these programs vary by state and may not be enough time for some teens to master the responsibility of driving. Parents need to evaluate the rules in their own state and possibly adopt more conservative family rules. For instance, Washington State restricts teens from driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. It’s quite likely that parents may want to set more stringent rules, such as an 8 p.m. curfew for young drivers, and gradually increase to a later curfew.”
Monahan warns parents that even the most responsible adolescents have a tendency to risk-taking.
“All teenagers are risk-takers. It’s a normal part of the neurological development of the adolescent years. Knowing this, it’s important that parents support their teen in making healthy decisions. Parents can do this by gradually giving their teen responsibilities, years before the potential driver’s license.”
So how should parents go about this slow, gradual process, knowing that no matter how slow they go, their teens, being risk-takers by nature, are still going to be at risk? “Gradually teaching responsibility, independence, and problem-solving is key to helping your teen be ready to drive. There are many opportunities to do so. Teaching your child to do their own chores and manage their own homework are two classic examples of beginning independent life skills. Children can participate in these tasks, with help, as young as 1st grade. Over time, the goal is to slowly give your child more and more control, until they are completely doing their own laundry and managing homework deadlines. These life skills develop responsibility, which translates into safer and more rule-oriented decisions behind the wheel,” says Monahan.
Not Yet Ready to Drive?
Let’s say you’ve been an exemplary parent, readying your child toward independent living for years, but you still have a nagging feeling that your child may not yet be ready to drive. How do you know if you’re just being a worrywart or if your concerns are justified? What are the signs that your child is just not ready to get behind the wheel? Monahan says it all comes down to your child’s ability to follow rules. “If your child is not consistently following rules at school or at home, your child is not ready to drive. The potential consequences are too big of a mistake of breaking rules when a teen is driving.”
Children thrive on approval. By the same token, teens respond well to the idea of meeting a parent’s expectations, says Monahan, and part and parcel of getting them ready to drive. “Parents can help a child prepare to drive by setting clear expectations for behavior that demonstrates responsibility. Keep expecting more of your child, and eventually, you’ll be ready to let them behind the wheel. Be careful to communicate to your child that they need to meet certain expectations prior to driving. If you have an honest communication about your concerns, and provide them a chance to prove themselves, they will be motivated to grow their skills.”