I love working with teens. They are in an interesting place of exploring independence while still aware of their need for a safety net. The teen drivers that my coaches and I work with are generally respectful, conscientious, and serious about learning safe driving skills. Well done, parents!
Along with all of these awesome traits, I’ve noticed one issue that can be detrimental to a teen driver’s learning experience, and overall driving preparedness. I call it “overthinking,” and the majority of my students suffer from it during our lessons.
What is Overthinking?
Overthinking is what happens when a driver makes a mistake and then gets stuck thinking about it rather than refocusing on the present. It’s a form of distracted driving, and it often leads to compounding mistakes.
When driving students make a mistake, they will begin to fixate on what happened, rehash the incident in their mind, go over what they should have done instead, and start to beat themselves up as though they are a failure. They go into their mind and start paying attention to their memory’s visualization of the event rather than the real life events taking place around their moving car!
I realize that teens have a lot of pressure on them today to be overachievers. They are working hard in school to do well on tests, excel in sports, participate in clubs, and make themselves look good for college applications. This often leads to a focus on perfectionism. When kids become perfectionists, they struggle to learn from and let go of their mistakes. What I see from my coach’s seat in the car are first-time drivers who believe they have to get it all right, and maybe even impress me, right out of the gate. They forget that they are here to learn, and that learning actually requires mistakes.
How to Correct or Prevent Overthinking
As a driving coach, I help my students prevent overthinking by setting clear expectations at the beginning of our time together. I tell teen drivers that they are not here to impress me; they are here to learn. Mistakes will absolutely happen, and I will definitely be pointing them out. But I don’t do that to make my students feel bad about themselves. We want mistakes to happen during their lessons so that they can learn how to avoid them in the future with excellent safe driving skills.
When a student driver makes a mistake, I calmly help them correct the situation. Then I immediately make sure their attention is back on the road. I remind them that we will go over the mistake later and that it is not something to worry about right now. I coach them on scanning and practicing awareness so that I know their mind is in the present. As soon as possible after that mistake, I point out something that they are doing well. This kind of reinforcement helps the student recover confidence and avoid fixating on their disappointment about the mistake.
I always wait until the car is stopped to go over the elements of the mistake. If a student is pretty rattled right when it happens, we might pull over to talk about it. If they are able to take it in stride, then we wait until the end of the lesson. Again, I make sure that every student gets balanced feedback so that they are motivated to continue learning. I encourage parent coaches to never underestimate the power of positive coaching. Your teen driver has a lot going on in that growing brain and needs your reassurance that both mistakes and achievements are part of the learning experience.
Coach Your Inner Perfectionist
If you have ever caught yourself overthinking a driving mistake, you have a good idea of what your teen is feeling. Most driving mistakes have no lasting impact, but we all know they have the potential to be catastrophic. That knowledge can sit with you and affect the rest of your trip. I would encourage you to partner with your teen driver in committing to accept and learn from driving mistakes. Together, you’ll hold each other accountable to maintain focus on the road ahead (and behind, and to the sides!) so that you can be lifelong safe drivers.
If you’re worried about conflict exacerbating your child’s propensity to overthink behind the wheel, consider safe driving lessons with a professional coach. We are outside the parent-child relationship, which can make a big difference in the teaching and learning dynamic. If you’re up for the challenge of coaching your teen to be a safe driver, check out our course designed just for parents: The Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers.