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There is a new epidemic claiming the lives of teens across the country, and it is not what you would expect. It is not alcohol or drugs, or even crime that is responsible for about 300,000 emergency room visits each year. The leading cause of death for U.S. teens is a motor vehicle accident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Every day, six teens between the ages of 16 and 19 years old die from crash crashes.
Research also shows that teen driver anxiety could be to blame.
Teens and driving anxiety
Driver anxiety is a common affliction for many Americans today, but it can be incredibly hard-hitting for teens who have little experience to fall back on. Navigating America’s chaotic roadways is difficult enough for the mature driver, but it can be downright terrifying for teens.
Driver anxiety is a specialized form of anxiety marked by periods of discomfort and stress, with symptoms varying in severity. Some signs, like an extreme panic attack, could pose a significant risk of injury to both you and the drivers around you. Some people may avoid driving altogether to avoid these negative feelings and, quite possibly, a negative outcome while behind the wheel.
We look to the experts to see best practices for living with and overcoming teen driver anxiety on the road.
What the experts say
According to the experts, teen driver anxiety is on the rise. Before parents can help, however, you must first know how to identify the signs of anxiety.
Signs of anxiety
One area of confusion is the sheer number of anxiety disorders that are present today. These are some signs that your teen is experiencing driver anxiety.
|Signs of Teen Driver Anxiety|
Inability to control worry or anxiety
Avoiding school or other regular activities
Disruption of daily activities
Edginess and irritability
Trouble falling asleep
Erica Curtis is a licensed marriage and family therapist and the award-winning author of The Innovative Parent: Raising Connected, Happy, Successful Kids Through Art. She explains how teen driver anxiety can impact the healthy development of many teens.
“At a minimum, driver anxiety could limit social and work options. At worst, driver anxiety could generalize to anxiety about going to new places or engaging in society. Driving anxiety may intensify in teens who do drive, as they may begin to feel anxious about becoming anxious while driving (or while performing certain operations such as driving on the freeway or over a bridge). This could create such an overwhelm that the driver experiences a panic attack while on the road, which is not only frightening but unsafe.”
Some parents may also find that their teens have frequent excuses when it comes time to practice driving or have no real excitement over receiving one’s license. Others may prefer to ride with a parent or with friends rather than learn to drive themselves.
Experts help us identify how driver anxiety can affect teens in different ways.
Anxiety is something that Dr. Deirdre Narcisse, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Montclair State University, says is especially prevalent amongst today’s young adults, with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reporting that about 8% of children and teens experience an anxiety disorder.
Curtis has seen it in her own experience. She shares, “There has been an uptick in anxiety in general among teens (depression as well) over the past fifteen years or so. Approximately 1 in 3 teens struggles with an anxiety disorder today. Those who have had a specific, negative experience on the road may also unconsciously associate driving with the fearful feelings they experienced during the past incident. Even seemingly unrelated traumas can show up as specific anxieties about driving if there are even vague similarities.”
Dr. Narcisse echoes that sentiment. “With anxiety, the more we avoid what makes us nervous, it can exacerbate the situation. To dissipate, you need to deal with it.”
Dealing with feelings of anxiety is exactly the opposite of what some teens do, according to South Florida psychologist Dr. Steve Seay. He explains that sometimes driver anxiety can be expressed in outright avoidance for teens when it comes time to get behind the wheel.
“Many young, eligible drivers simply don’t realize that their driving fears are driven by an anxiety disorder, and they choose to forgo taking their driving tests because of anxiety. Oftentimes, their parents never even realize that anxiety is a factor in their driving avoidance.”
Don’t assume your teen is anxious about driving simply because they are unmotivated to drive. Lack of motivation can be a sign of anxious avoidance, but it could also stem from other beliefs or feelings such as environmental concerns, the effort required or feeling overwhelmed due to other responsibilities.”
Instead, she suggests, ask open-ended questions about their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about driving.
Teen driver anxiety can manifest itself in other ways, says Dr. Fredric Neuman, Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Clinic. He identifies driver anxiety as a specific condition called vehohobia and warns that driver anxiety could also be expressed as agoraphobia. The best way to deal with these fears, he says, is to confront them directly.
Still, it can be incredibly discouraging to wishful parents who want their children to experience the independence and convenience of driving.
Says Seay, “Never fear, though. If you or your child has excessive driving-related anxiety or driving fears, there IS effective therapy available.”
Helping teens cope
Just because a teen is anxious about driving today does not mean that it is a lasting condition that your teen must battle forever. Teen driver anxiety can easily and effectively be treated in several ways, such as these.
Create a routine
Dr. John Duffy is a psychologist and author of the best-selling book Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety. He stresses the importance of creating a routine, something he recommends to his clients.
“The teenagers I’m working with who are wholly unstructured are listless, anxious and frustrated, and no one wants to feel that way. Even if your teen opposes a strict schedule, it’s a good idea to have them settle into a routine that works for them.”
Elise Aronov, MSW, is a clinical social worker with family practices in both New York City and New Jersey. She recommends that parents remind teens why a driver’s license is important in the long run. It can go far beyond a simple ride to school or work and can instead serve as a life-saving transport if an older relative or friend has an emergency.
Still, Dr. Aronov says, be careful not to apply pressure. “Say, ‘You don’t have to drive. You can get your license and not use it right away. [But] it’s good to have options.”
“Parents are their teens’ No. 1 driving teacher and coach, but they often don’t recognize this or seek additional support,” explains Pam Shadel Fischer, a teen driving safety expert with the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA).
“As a parent, it’s important to ensure your teen is driving a safe vehicle, that you are knowledgeable about your state’s teen licensing requirements and the rules of the road, and that you seek out resources to help you help your teen driver build skills. This is critical as technology, licensing and driving laws and best practices continue to evolve.”
Teens can also benefit from role model behavior. “It’s important to model behavior that will assuage your teen,” Dr. Narcisse reminds parents. “Demonstrate positive and relaxed behavior whenever you can.”
Find a support group
Teens can benefit significantly from a support system, says Dr. Duffy. “I find that teens who talk with their friends daily via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime feel more validated and acknowledged than those who do not. It’s a way to ensure our kids recognize that they’re not alone in the suffering or loss affiliated with this time.”
Consider exposure therapy
Dr. Narcisse also recommends that teens consider exposure therapy to combat driver anxiety.
“Parents can take small steps to get their teens comfortable with the idea of driving, such as introducing remote exposure,” she explains. “Online tutorials are an easy way to learn about driving without having to go anywhere near the highway.”
She highlights mini-exposures, like simply sitting in the driver’s seat without the car running. “When they get comfortable with that, guide them through moving the car up and down the driveway.”
“The exposure is a way to get them comfortable without forcing them onto the road,” says Dr. Narcisse. “And it lets you see if they’re interested in getting out onto the road or not.”
Seek professional help
You can’t help if you don’t know what is wrong.
Erica Curtis has helped many teens with driver anxiety. “Anxiety is typically accompanied by a negative belief about one’s self, such as, ‘I’m not safe’ or ‘I can’t handle it.’ A skilled therapist can help individuals gently challenge and replace anxious thoughts and primal fight/flight fear impulses with more empowering thoughts, feelings, and sensations through a variety of techniques,” she shares. “These might include visualization or other forms of exposure, relaxation techniques, trauma-informed practices, and more.”
Above all, have patience. Driving is a heady responsibility that can make even experienced adults nervous. After all, says Dr. Narcisse, “Just because they can, doesn’t mean this is the right time for them.”