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“How My Anxious Daughter Became a Road Warrior”

The keys to teaching Lee, diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, how to drive.

“Pull a U-ie, Lee.”

“I don’t know how to!”

“Just make a sharp left turn!”

The next thing I knew, our front tires were on the sidewalk, the back of the car blocking the right lane of oncoming traffic. My heart was racing, but that was nothing next to what Lee was feeling. I could see fear break out in silent waves across her body and forced myself to speak calmly.

“OK, we’re going to get out of this. See? The cars are going around us. When they’re gone, we’ll just back out and complete the turn. OK, go!”

Lee backed out and almost smashed into the concrete barrier behind us. I sucked in a breath.

“Just go straight ahead!” She did, right into the exit lane of a senior residential complex, surprising the woman who was driving out.

Lee turned left and parked. We sat in silence, breathing hard. I’d just given the keys to a two-ton SUV to my daughter, who struggled with ADHD and anxiety. Was I insane?

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have an Anxiety Disorder?]

Most of Lee’s friends started driving three years earlier at 15 with a permit. But Lee’s desire to drive had disappeared as her anxiety disorder had increased.  “Mom, what about my squirrel moments?” “What if I have a panic attack?” Driving would be a mountain for her to climb, not the first step to independence so many teenagers covet.

When she turned 18, I worried that if she waited longer, her anxiety over driving would get worse. I found a driving school with a teacher who drilled the kids every day, six hours a day, for four days. Lee became a walking talking driver’s education manual, correcting every minor infraction I committed. “Mom! You forgot to look over your shoulder!” “Mom! You went too far over the line before you braked!”

She breezed through the permit test, which gave her the courage to sign up for her first driving lesson. The drivers school sat her in a Prius, with an extra set of brakes for the teacher. But when it came time to practice with me, she hated my larger car and the way I pumped my invisible brake every time we came to a stop sign.

“Mom, I can see you gripping the door. Are you nervous?”

Hell, yes, I thought. “No honey, go ahead,” I said, forcing my hands into my lap.

The first few months, I didn’t know which was worse —her anxiety or mine. We cringed as horns blared when she forgot to look over her shoulder for a lane change. When a traffic light ahead turned yellow, I urged, “Stop,” then watched as her impulses took over as she sped through the intersection. If she didn’t know which way to go, she froze and hit her brakes, right in the middle of the road, as I yelled, “Go, go!”

[Panic Buttons: How to Stop Anxiety and Its Triggers]

Five months passed, and Lee hadn’t gotten behind the wheel much. I couldn’t blame her; I didn’t want to get in the passenger seat. Then we took a trip to the desert. As we drove on wide-open roads with barely any traffic, I thought, If she couldn’t learn to drive here, then where?

Practicing on the empty roads worked magic for Lee, and “Do I have to drive?” became “Where are the keys?”

One day, while we were still in the desert, Lee drove my husband and me into a small parking lot in town. We all groaned as we saw a car, up ahead, blocking the lane to go forward. Stuck now, she’d have to reverse in the narrow lot and turn around. A car came up behind us. We were the ham in the sandwich, wedged in-between.

My husband opened his door and started to get out.

“Stop, Dad, I’ve got this.”

He gave her a long look. “If you do,” he said, “you could get your license today.”

Lee took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Then she signaled the driver to back up and, at the same time, executed her own smooth reverse turn, driving us out of the parking lot as if this kind of thing happened every day.

[A Crash Course in Safe Driving]

My husband and I cheered, and as I leaned back, I realized that those scary road challenges were exactly what she needed to build her confidence, not ones to avoid. With each hurdle, she was kicking anxiety a little farther down the road. And that would help me do the same.