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Driving Fears & Driving Avoidance in Teens & Young Drivers

Driving fears and avoidance in teens may reflect normal development or possibly an emerging anxiety disorder.

Driving fears and avoidance in teens may reflect normal development or possibly an emerging anxiety disorder.

Reader Question: My daughter just turned 15, and no matter what I say, I can’t seem to convince her to practice her driving.

It’s strange, because in the past, all she could do is talk about how excited she was to finally get her permit.

I truly thought that she’d be practicing constantly once she was legally able to.

Have you seen this before? Could her driving avoidance possibly be related to her OCD?

Stressed-Out Parent

Answer: Maybe, maybe not.

Driving Fears May Be Normal…

Driving-related anxiety is a completely normal phenomenon. For many people, learning to drive is the first time that they are individually responsible for handling a situation that could potentially be life-threatening. Although car accidents are (hopefully) rare for most individuals, accidents can be harmful (or deadly) when they do occur. Being in charge of a (potentially) deadly “weapon” brings with it an immense sense of responsibility. This can give rise to driving fears.

For that reason, even the most non-anxious person may initially balk at driving.

Nevertheless, for the majority of individuals, driving fears lessen with practice, and ultimately the person develops a sense of mastery over their driving. The act of driving becomes associated with pleasure and independence rather than with fear.

…But Driving Fears May Also Reflect An Anxiety Disorder

There are times, however, when driving anxiety becomes excessive or maladaptive. I’ve discussed driving-related fears in several previous posts, and it’s important to acknowledge that driving fears may sometimes reflect an underlying anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder or hit-and-run obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I won’t reiterate the differences between hit-and-run OCD and panic disorder with agoraphobia here, but both of these conditions are associated with significant anxiety that should be addressed in the context of therapy.

In my own South Florida psychological practice, I see a tremendous number of young drivers who are debilitated by anxiety. Many young, eligible drivers simply don’t realize that their driving fears are driven by an anxiety disorder, and they choose to forego taking their driving tests because of anxiety.

Oftentimes, their parents never even realize that anxiety is a factor in their driving avoidance (i.e., the teens would never say as much)… Yet, these young drivers postpone taking their driving tests over and over again. At first, the excuses are plausible:

  • “I don’t really care about driving. I’ll get around to it one of these days.”
  • “It’s really not a big deal for me. The parking situation at school is terrible anyway. What’s the point?”
  • “I don’t even have my own car. Why learn to drive if I don’t have my own vehicle? I’ll practice driving and take the test when I have a car.”
  • “There’s no point in me driving. All of my friends already have their licenses, and they’re more than happy to give me a ride.”

Meanwhile, parents are lamenting…

  • “What’s wrong with my child? Why won’t he/she get his/her driver’s license?”
  • “Why does my child refuse to practice driving?”
  • “What causes my kid to not care about getting their driver’s license?”
  • “Why is my child not driving when all of their friends have their licenses already?”

Why? Because driving fears can be intense.

When you worry that driving, an optional behavior, might ultimately cost someone their life, you make use of any and every excuse to avoid driving. Because anxiety over learning to drive is normal, you blend in at first. Most parents can relate to the fear of driving, as they likely experienced some element of it themselves when they began to drive.

Yet, teens and young adults with driving-related anxiety may avoid driving for months — if not years or decades — before taking steps to overcome their anxiety (if they do so at all).

Never fear, though. If you or your child has excessive driving-related anxiety or driving fears, there IS effective therapy available. It’s called exposure and response prevention (ERP), a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that was designed specifically to reduce anxiety symptoms.

Questions?  Comments? Have a child who is avoiding getting their driver’s license? Sound off below…

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