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Maintain Listening Mode with Your Teen Driver

Every parent knows that communicating with teenagers can be a bit of a minefield even on a good day. Toss in a little extra stress - like a driving lesson - and the number of mines in that field seems to triple. Although navigating these years can be tough, parents know they can’t just give up on talking to their kids. Teens still have a lot to learn, so parents need to find a way to communicate effectively, especially during important lessons like driving.

Communication is not just about the words we say. Body language, volume, and tone all contribute to the art of communication. When parents convey tension, anger, fear, or condescension to their child, the child typically experiences a stress response that prevents them from processing the information. In the case of a driving lesson, this reduces the teen’s ability to concentrate on the task of driving at all, much less driving safely. For optimal lesson success, parents need to keep their teen’s brain in listening mode during drive time.

The Brain and Body Response to Yelling

Most people respond to being yelled at with chemical surges through their sympathetic nervous system. We commonly call this the fight, flight, or freeze response. When someone yells at us, the primal parts of our brain receive a signal that we are under a threat or in some kind of danger. The body responds by shutting down functions that aren’t relative to keeping us alive in that moment so it can conserve power for those that do.

This response is a survival instinct, based on ancient threats of wild animals or hostile invaders. When faced with this type of situation, cognitive processes like thinking logically turn off so that we don’t spend precious seconds deciding what to do next. The nervous system simply focuses all its energy out to the muscles and limbs, and there isn’t much that the average person can do about it for at least a minute or so. 

Now imagine you are in the car with your teen driver, they make a mistake, and you begin to yell about the situation. In your mind, you may simply want to get their attention to prevent an accident or dangerous maneuver. Yelling isn’t always done in anger; you may be having your very own sympathetic nervous system response to a scary situation. Unfortunately, your teen’s brain, which is already operating at a higher level of stress due to the unfamiliar experience of driving, will only detect a new threat and respond accordingly. They probably can’t really process much other than the fact that you are yelling and that they are in danger. Their body’s response could make the present situation worse in several ways.

Self-control Requires Conscious Practice

One aspect of teaching people to drive, or really to do any high stress task, is to learn to control your own sympathetic nervous system response. As a driving coach, I know that my ability to stay calm even in scary situations will help my students keep their minds in the listening and learning zone. Staying consistently calm also sends a message to my students that they don’t need to be nervous that I’m going to yell or overreact. Their sympathetic nervous system remains stable throughout the lesson so that they can hear, listen, and process the instructions.

Of course, teen drivers are still bound to get nervous and react in that heightened stress state. They are learning something new, and they don’t have enough life or driving experience to maintain perfect self-control. If we’re being honest, plenty of adult drivers struggle to maintain self-control as well.

This is why I teach driving lessons, and it’s why I offer courses for parents who are teaching their teens to drive. We are on a mission to create safe drivers who have both the driving skills and the self-control to manage a variety of conditions and situations calmly and correctly. We as adults need to have a handle on maintaining a calm environment during a driving lesson, and teens need to be taught how to keep their heads on straight even when things go wrong.

Consider Realistic Expectations and Limitations

As a parent, you have 16 or so years of life history with your teen. There is baggage to the driving relationship before it even starts. It’s not always easy for you to speak calmly and for them to listen attentively, even when things are relatively neutral. Add in the neurological changes in your teen that make them actually tune out the sound of your voice, and the recipe for yelling followed by a shutdown response is baked in.

It should help to ease in to driving lessons with a LOT of early conversations to set expectations and lay the ground rules. Sometimes, it makes the most sense to allow your teen to learn safe driving skills from another adult. Every family comes to this decision in their own way. My goal is to be supportive, offer excellent resources, and create an environment where safe driving skills will be instilled for life. If you’re about to teach your teen how to drive, take a look at my Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers. And if you’re thinking that your teen will learn best from a voice other than your own, consider Safe Driving Lessons. Our coaches are committed to calm instruction that builds confident, safe teen drivers.


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