Teens, Driving and Dating
I've been an outpatient child psychologist for over twenty-seven years, and have recently completed a ebook, How To Change Teenager's Behavior. Below is an excerpt, summarizing some thoughts on teen driving, followed by dating (next article).
Your task as the parent is to shape your teenager; training them,
little by little, coaxing them into developing the characteristics of
responsible drivers. What does that mean? List them: responsibility,
good judgment, unselfishness, controlled impulsivity, farsightedness and respect. Take them one at a time, and shape them by rewarding behaviors that are close, at first. Use modeling, cueing, etc. Do this until you see enough of these traits emerging and stabilizing to warrant trusting your teen on the road. Its a huge judgment call on your part as the parent, but you know your teenager better than anyone else, and can instinctively make this decision based upon your daily interactions.
"The Dance" (see previous articles on teenagers by this author) is about your teen showing you what they are made of, how mature they are, how in control of their impulses they are, how respectful they are in all areas of home, school and social life. These are the yardsticks parents use to assess the likelihood of their teen's driving well. Why is this important?
Remember, when they drive off for the first time, probably in your car, without you in the passenger seat, you will no longer control what happens. They, in all their immaturity, now "present" all their characters to the world of fellow drivers. They will transfer through the car onto the real world whatever level of judgment and self-control they have. The bad news is that they will also act out immaturity on the road, just as they did by not cleaning their rooms. Those same attitudes don't exist solely in one domain.
The good news is that most of us make it through this rite of passage. It is the enormity or scope of the consequences that gives we parents pause, but it is this same salience that motivates teens to "step up to the plate," to prove to themselves and to us that they are ready. Thus the reward is in the accomplishment to the teen, and to the relinquishment of withholding to we parents.
Another example is dating. Before dealing with the onset of dating
behaviors, let me digress and define dating. It used to be that dating meant going out with at least one other person, who we would treat as special, at least for the night. It also implied having possibly but not necessarily having more than just casual feelings for that person, or at least having sufficient interest in that person to give them individual attention around some unique event--dinner with only them, a movie with only them, etc. Double dating was just an expansion of these ideas, applied to another couple occupying the same space, participating in the same activities. Serious dating implied being more exclusive, later monogamous; meaning, being with only one person in a dating capacity, excluding others. Dating implied greater intimacy, which opened the door to the possibility of sex. (Drugs and rock and roll activities could happen anywhere along the way.)
"Nowadays" dating is much more loosely defined. I recently talked with an eleven-year-old girl in my office, who had been "dating" for two years. That begged the question, so I asked what she meant by dating. She said, "You know, meeting at recess behind the bungalows." Then I asked, "What do you do behind the bungalows?" She said, "Well, you know, talk and stuff." I persisted. "Stuff?" "Well, we give each other stuff, like something we found, or we hold hands or just hang out." This seems innocent enough, but later I found out this "dating" also involved some pretty intimate touching and some exchange of drugs (marijuana, in this case). Adult behaviors start somewhere at some time. It appears to be the case that "dating" and all its machinations starts earlier and earlier. It used to be that dating used to involve travel, usually by car. Now, travel means walking a few hundred feet at school.
At what age should teens be allowed to fraternize with others in this way? The adumbrations of this class of behavior are starting to wear makeup (usually but not always girls) and shaving (both genders) and body-building (usually but not always boys). These are all normal, but the ages at which they occur vary. In my outpatient private practice as a child psychologist, I have seen the portents of dating start as early as eight in girls and nine in boys, or as late as sixteen or later in either gender. It depends upon more variables than the scope of this article allows. Regardless, when (usually not if) this happens, "The Dance" accelerates. (See other articles by this author for an explanation of The Dance.) Teens start to push the talk-on-the-cell-phone time limits and later the curfew limits. And, not coincidentally, when they are violating the here-to-fore established "standards," they often "just happen" to be interacting with another teen in "dating" mode.
Dating, by itself is not terminal; that is, teens will not self-destruct the minute they discover more intimate attachments to another. But the onset of dating does cause parents alarm, because it brings up the specter of sex and other dreaded behaviors, e.g., alcohol use. The emergence of dating causes parents to think about "the sex talk," which by the way, has usually already been addressed, at least from the teen's point of view, by their sex-ed class.