Thanks to ride sharing apps, teens aren’t as anxious to get behind the wheel as previous generations. But should parents be insisting their kids learn to drive when it comes time anyway? Experts weigh in.

By Melissa Klurman
April 10, 2020
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When I was in high school, there was no bigger rite of passage than being able to drive. But today, there's a trend of teens not getting their license when they come of age. With ride sharing apps as a convenient way to get around, coupled with rising costs of owning a car and an eye on the environment, many teens don't feel the push to get their licenses.

In fact, only about a quarter of 16-year-olds had a driver's license in 2014, a sharp decline from nearly half in 1983, according to a study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

As a parent of teen on the cusp of getting his license in these uncertain times, I often wonder if driving is a life skill that should be encouraged even if teens don't see the need for a license. Here's what the experts have to say.

It's OK to Encourage Teens to Drive

Elise Aronov, MSW, a clinical social worker with family practices in both New York City and New Jersey, has seen the rise in teens not getting their license, and encourages them to do what they're most comfortable with. That doesn't mean, however, that parents can't encourage their teen to try if there are no obstacles preventing them from getting behind the wheel. "But say, 'You don't have to drive. You can get your license and not use it right away,'" advises Aronov.

Remind teens "it's good to have options," adds Aronov. Having a license means being able to be a designated driver in an emergency, or if a friend isn't capable of driving home one day. And during a time like the coronavirus pandemic, when social distancing makes an Uber ride or relying on a friend impractical, having a license is more important than ever. In the event of a worst-case scenario where a parent becomes incapacitated because they become ill, having a teen driver ready to step in can be invaluable, says Deirdre Narcisse, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at Montclair State University.

Parents can take small steps to get their teens comfortable with the idea of driving, such as introducing remote exposure, says Dr. Narcisse. Online tutorials are an easy way to learn about driving, without having to go anywhere near the highway. And then consider "mini exposures" like having them turn on the car or simply sit in the driver's seat without going anywhere at first. 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 on to the road," says Dr. Narcisse. "And it lets you see if they're interested in getting out onto the road or not."

Learn Why They Don't Want to Drive

But what if your teen shows no interest in driving? Dr. Narcisse says it's important to first assess why your teen doesn't want to get into the driver's seat.

Sometimes it's simply because of their peers. "What their circle of friends is doing may dictate what they want to do," says Dr. Narcisse. If the norm is that many of them aren't driving, there's no pressure to get a license. That's fine if that's the case, adds Dr. Narcisse, "as long as they're making the decision on their own."

Other times kids are just too nervous to drive, especially in a time when they have other options. "Being able to say, 'Well, I don't need to drive,' keeps them in a holding pattern of never trying," says Dr. Narcisse. In that case, let them take their time. Claudia Laroye, a parent of two teen sons in Vancouver, bought her older son a full course of 10 driving lessons when he turned 16, but he left the certificate untouched, instead taking public transportation and biking around campus until just this year when he was about to turn 20 and in a relationship where he suddenly wanted to get behind the wheel. "It was there and waiting," says Laroye, until he was ready.

Another reason that requires more attention is anxiety, which is prevalent in society today, and among young people—about 8 percent of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. This can factor into some teens' decisions not to get their license. Nearly 25 percent of teens surveyed by insurance comparison website The Zebra said they don't have a license because of their fear of driving a car. "With anxiety, the more we avoid what makes us nervous, it can exacerbate the situation," says Dr. Narcisse. "To dissipate, you need to deal with it."

That's why parents need to step in. That doesn't necessarily mean you should push kids to drive—especially in a time when the COVID-19 crisis is causing disruptions in their regular school year, time with friends, and schedule. "It's important to model behavior that will assuage your teen. Demonstrate positive, and relaxed, behavior whenever you can," says Dr. Narcisse.

Keep the lines of communications with your teen open, explains Dr. Narcisse. Acknowledge their feelings, and don't use judgmental language. Do ask them, though, what would make driving a less stressful experience for them. And if the anxiety is getting in the way of their everyday life, you can also talk to a mental health professional to help them develop coping tactics and strategies.

The Bottom Line

Remember that the legal driving age doesn't dictate when a teen is ready. "Just because they can, doesn't mean this is the right time for them," says Dr. Narcisse. It's ultimately best to let teens come to their own conclusions about driving while fostering a sense of confidence in them to make their own decisions and stepping in only when necessary. In the end, having control over their circumstances is what teens crave, whether that means driving, or using Uber to get to where they're going.

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