As excited as most teens are to start driving, they are also usually a little bit nervous. This feeling is perfectly natural and is common for all of us with new experiences. The goal of driving lessons is to guide them through all of the firsts so that their emotions even out by the time they have some experience.
Every once in a while, though, I have a teen driver who is more than a little bit nervous. These students are actually afraid to drive. Most of the time, it’s not a paralyzing fear - they will still get behind the wheel. But they just can’t relax into a naturally attentive mode. Instead, they are hyper-vigilant and visibly anxious throughout the lesson.
Active Listening Helps Identify the Real Problem
As every parent knows, asking a teenager what’s wrong is not a very effective path to discovering their thoughts. When I notice that a student is unnaturally nervous for the situation, I make sure my listening skills are on point. First, I pay attention to the questions they ask me. Often, that’s a clue into what’s bothering them. If they aren’t doing much talking, I might just come out and ask, “What is your biggest fear right now?”
The answer to this question may be very revealing, or it might start us down a path of identifying the real issue. For example, if the teen says, “I have to pay for my own car insurance when I get my license, which means I’ll have to quit soccer to get a job,” we have a pretty clear cut problem. It may go a little deeper than that, like that the teen’s bigger concern is not knowing how to approach their parents about the topic. We can do some brainstorming, and we usually come up with a few ideas that settle the teen’s mind for our lesson purposes.
In other cases, getting to the bottom of the problem may take additional skills, “I’m afraid I’m going to crash through the guardrail and fly off that cliff.” Now that’s a big fear, but it doesn’t come out of thin air. With a few more questions, I look for what is underlying that tragic scenario. It may be that the teen was in a car crash when they were younger, and they are overwhelmed by the idea that they will get into one while driving.
Reframe Realistic Expectations
When teen drivers have a real fear around driving, it’s important not to minimize those fears. When we tell them that it’s all in their head, or that this bad thing won’t happen to them, it doesn’t make their fear go away. It only makes them internalize it further, because now they won’t talk about it anymore.
Instead, I try to bring everything into a realistic frame of reference. Sometimes we talk more about that old accident and the factors that contributed to it. We can talk about how those factors can be avoided through safe driving skills. Another approach is to have the teen do some visualization exercises to get past a fear of a specific situation. We may discuss the fact that car crashes do happen, but that this very experience of driving lessons will greatly reduce their chances of being involved in one. We’ll also talk through a few what ifs that are distracting them, highlighting the various safe driving skills that will help them avoid a crash.
Most of the time, my students are able to work past their fears and successfully pass their license exam. I have learned two really important things by engaging with teen drivers this way. First, teenagers have big thoughts, and their young minds don’t always know what to do with them. Second, I’ve learned to always take my students seriously, which creates a trusting environment for them to work through their fears to become experienced safe drivers.
Driving Fears Can Affect Anyone
Teens are not the only ones who are afraid to drive. Adults can also develop a fear of driving after an accident, or even after an unrelated traumatic event. Sometimes, a fear of dying (caused by some real event) will spread out into a fear of doing anything that comes with inherent risks. The difference is that an adult’s longer history of driving will usually help them resolve their fears over time. Teens don’t have that background experience to compare with the present, which is why their fears might override their ability to drive at all.
If your teen is showing more fear of driving than you think is natural, try to get to the underlying issues. If you feel ill-equipped to help them get beyond their fear, consider professional driving lessons. Sometimes getting behind the wheel with a non-relative coach is what it takes to help them focus on the present. If you know an adult who is still afraid to drive after a serious event, have them contact us. We may be able to help them get back behind the wheel with a few safe driving lessons.