A therapy session for parents of teen drivers

On the Road 3 min read

If your teen is about to get their driver’s license, you may be experiencing some anxiety over the fact that they’re taking the first step towards full-blown, I-no-longer-have-any-use-for-the-parents-who-brought-me-into-this-world independence. According to Guy Winch, the psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts, you can relax—they’ve been preparing to fly the nest (or drive away from it, as the case may be) since they were able to crawl. In addition to that comforting thought, Dr. Winch has a few more tidbits of practical advice to get you through this bittersweet milestone.

This is an opportunity

A huge part of being able to let go is simply recognizing that you have to. Whether you admit it to yourself or not, this is the end of a significant era; for the first time, your teen isn’t fundamentally dependent on you to be able to physically get somewhere they want to go. That’s kind of sad, but it’s nothing compared to the emotional gravity to come in a year or two when they prepare to leave home for college. Winch suggests you use this as the “ready, set, go signal to start preparing emotionally for that.” The end of one era is merely the beginning of a different kind of relationship. You’re still their parent, and who did you call the first time you had to do your own laundry?

Decide what you’re willing to let go

Eliminating old, repetitive parenting techniques will maximize the impact of your efforts as your teen asserts their own independence. For example, Winch says if your 17-year-old still doesn’t know to bring a coat when they’re heading out in the middle of January, you’re not going to teach them now. “Do some real thinking about what you want to let go and what’s really important to keep. Think about the bang for your buck,” he says. Otherwise, your teen will get so used to tuning you out that they won’t listen when you actually have something important to say—like, “You’re going to hit that mailbox.”

Make them drive you

Here’s Winch’s clever method of keeping tabs on your teen without stifling their independence: Next time you need to go somewhere together, call shotgun. During the trip, keep your mouth shut, observe, and keep mental notes of every time you try to put your foot through the floorboard. Once at your destination, stroke their ego (“Wow, that was fun. Now you can drive me to soccer practice!”) before politely asking if they mind a bit of constructive feedback. Now you’ve seen how they handle the wheel, they’ve opened up to your non-distracting tips, and you’ve both begun to forge a different kind of relationship.

Communicate clearly and set boundaries

Safety is your top priority as the parent of a teen driver, and while they might have their license, you still get to decide if they’re ready to use it. Be straight with them about their responsibilities and your expectations. “Yes, you can have the car, but you must text me when you arrive and be back by this time.” If they fail to meet those expectations, they don’t get the car next time they ask—simple as that. “Let them know, ‘I’m going to allow you to have the car because I know that’s important to you, but I’m going to sit and worry because you just got your license,’” says Winch. “‘If you’re not considerate of my feelings, why should I be considerate of yours?’”

A note here about what to do if you and your partner disagree on your teen’s curfew, for example. Says Winch, “The two of you holding the line has a much bigger impact than the nuance of where the line might be.” In other words, your kid is much more apt to respond to a unified front, even if you would have given them another 30 minutes.

Make them earn it

Winch has one last suggestion for all those parents who buy their teens a car simply because they’re of age to drive. While doing so might free up the car for you to use, it should be something the kid has to earn. “Let them demonstrate an appreciation for safety and responsibility and show good citizenship,” he says. Plus, if anyone deserves a new car for getting through all this, it’s going to be you.

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