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How to Keep Your Teen Safe Behind the Wheel

Driving Dilemmas

Moms from our online networking community Momster.com had their questions answered by Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., psychology professor at Temple University and author of You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10 to 25 (Simon & Schuster).

"I'm trying to teach my daughter to drive but I get nervous and sometimes say things like, 'Brake!' too loudly. She becomes defensive and we start to argue. Is there a way for our lessons to be more constructive?" —Angelique

The day I got my learner's permit, I asked my mom to take me driving. She asked if I knew what I was doing, and after rolling my eyes I accidentally floored the accelerator—with the car in reverse. That was it for her! From then on my dad was my driving instructor. A new driver is bound to make mistakes, so parents in the passenger seat need nerves of steel. If you tend to be jumpy, nervous or unable to control your reactions when frightened, let another family member or adult friend fill in. Learning to drive is hard enough for teens without a passenger gasping loudly at every red light.

"My 16-year-old just started driving. He is very responsible but I can't help thinking something bad might happen to him. How can I cope with my fear?" —NevadaGreenEyes

You're not alone. For many parents, handing over the car keys is a scary moment. After all, your number one priority for years has been to protect your son and suddenly you're asked to allow something that's inherently dangerous. It goes against your strongest parental instincts. The best thing to do is spend time as a passenger while your son drives. Let him chauffeur you on errands or plan excursions where he takes the wheel. The more chances you have to see that he knows what he's doing, the faster your fears will dissipate. Then when he goes off on his own, visualize him driving by himself just as competently as he did with you. If he truly is a good driver, he's probably safer behind the wheel than as a passenger in some other teen's car. Your anxiety won't completely disappear, but it is likely to fade over time.

"My daughter hit a car on her way to school. The damage to the other car is $3,500. Should I take away her driving privileges and/or make her contribute to the cost of the damage?" —Complexstory

It depends on the nature of the accident, since there's a big difference between a crash caused by skidding during a snowstorm versus one caused by ignoring a red light. Consider her driving record. If this is her first incident and she's normally a safe driver, don't take away her driving privileges. But if there's a pattern of reckless driving, it's OK not to let her drive for a certain period of time. Regardless of whether this is her first accident, she should contribute to the cost of repairs or the insurance deductible, assuming she has a source of income like a part-time job or an allowance. How much she contributes—and according to what schedule—depends on her resources. Aim for an amount that will make her realize the seriousness of the situation without being overly punitive.

"My daughter failed the test to get her learner's permit twice and is too nervous and embarrassed to try again. Can I boost her confidence and encourage her to give it another go?" —KerryF

Let some time pass and don't badger her. When she decides she's ready to retake it, make a plan to study together and help her practice until she has the material down cold. That should help alleviate some of the nervousness. And ask her why she feels embarrassed. After all, the people at the DMV don't know her and won't care that it's her third attempt. If it's her friends' opinions she's worried about, she should retake the test without telling them. She can share the good news after she gets her license.