Welcome the New Driver
Susan Newman, LCSW with
Getting a driver’s license is a significant milestone of developmental growth for a teenager. Driving a car is an American rite of passage, signaling to peers and adults alike that the adolescent has arrived on the threshold of maturity. The new driver is trying on for size certain adult rights and responsibilities.
Dr. Moisy Shopper, Faculty Member at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, says that “a car and a new driver present great difficulty to a family.” Parents want their adolescent son or daughter to understand that “hitting the road” is a serious undertaking and that an awesome respect for the power that comes with a set of car keys is essential to the new driver, his family and society.
Dr. Shopper continues that “from a parental standpoint, the teenager is a potentially dangerous driver.” Even though physiologically, he is in top form with better eyesight and quicker reflexes than an adult, the teenage driver has a higher accident rate due to a paucity of judgment and driving experience. Alcohol and drugs are the foremost causes of poor driving judgment and auto accidents for a teenager. Thus, parents rightfully fear that there is great potential for their new driver to do great harm to himself, other people and the vehicle as property.
Dr. Shopper stresses that from a family dynamic point of view, many issues must be considered and negotiated before the family car leaves the driveway. For example, who owns the car? And at what times will the adolescent have access to the car? What are the family rules governing who pays for car insurance, gasoline, repairs and maintenance? Another issue that families must consider is who should teach the adolescent to drive. “Some adolescents cannot learn from parents and some parents are unable to be good teachers because learning to drive was a trouble spot between them and their parents,” continues Dr. Shopper. Also, the degree to which access to a car is made conditional or is used as a punishment is a flashpoint in the parent-adolescent relationship, unique to each family.
“The way in which parents and the adolescent make decisions about the car is determined by an awareness of the developmental tasks of this stage of growth and how these matters were handled in the parents’ family of origin,” says Dr. Shopper. He firmly believes that learning to drive is a handing down of skills from one generation to the next.
Dr. Shopper concludes that “there is a profound relationship between the car, sexual prowess, narcissistic display, aggrandizement of power and beauty, teenage fads and even homicidal or suicidal instruments.” So the new driver makes risk-taking a matter of life and death. An adolescent can test himself and others by pushing the limits while driving. “When a car is used in this manner, there is no room for error. The results can be devastating and deadly.”
Moisy Shopper, MD, is a Faculty Member at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute and Clinical Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Child Psychiatry, Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Susan Newman, LCSW, is a free-lance writer.