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“Letting My ADHD Teen Take the Wheel”

“It’s as if he’s walking on a balancing beam, and I’m using all my energy to stay by his side in case he needs me to hold him steady. Now, he’s driving away from me into a world where he must think quickly or crash. What if he really wasn’t ready to drive? What if I hadn’t done a good enough job of teaching him to navigate?”

Photo taken in Seoul, South Korea
Photo taken in Seoul, South Korea

“I’m leaving,” my 17-year-old son yelled.

“You’re what?!” I ran to the window and flung open the curtains.

Avary was backing the black Jetta out of our driveway. It was angled perfectly for the taillight to smash into the fencepost. He is finally driving alone, I thought as I dashed down the stairs to get to the car before it hit the fence.

This moment marked yet another tenuous step toward this boy’s independence. And, as it always happens, Avary’s movement was causing me extreme anxiety.

Understanding —  and Explaining — Avary

Avary’s developmental milestones don’t always mirror those of his peers. His can be a few steps behind, and he never communicates when they are near. Both of those qualities make mothering him super stressful — I never know when he will finally decide he is ready to move himself forward.

As for driving, he and I have practiced for this moment many times. Recently, when I picked him up from high school, I parked the car and moved to the passenger’s seat.

[Free Download: Executive Skills Questionnaire for Parents and Teens]

Avary looked at me quizzically, “Am I driving?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Did you bring my billfold? With my driver’s license?” His hands were tucked deep into the pockets of his sweatpants. He doesn’t wear jeans. They are too tight and restricting and the material feels scratchy on his skin.

“We are only driving four blocks, Barney Fife,” I said.

“What?” He didn’t get the reference.

“We will be fine without your driver’s license,” I said. “Get in the car.”

He conquered driver’s ed and earned his license easily compared to other tasks that take him lots of work to master. Even so, he never asked to drive the car on his own and refused to drive himself to school, which was only four blocks away.

“It’s complicated and scary,” he explained. “Too many things to think about at once.”

[Read: How to Steer Your Teen Toward Safe Driving]

As I listened, my heart beat a bit faster. He’s actually describing how he feels about something, I thought — another quick peek into his mysterious mind before he tunes me out.

In First Grade, the school principal told me that Avary couldn’t sit still. He would glance out the window while his teacher read to the class. I took him to the children’s hospital in town, where he was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety.

He’s now a junior in high school and I’ve spent literally more than a hundred hours in conferences, meetings, and therapist offices working on ways to engage Avary. I’ve also had to beg various teachers and others through the years not to take personally Avary’s blank stares and lack of words. (He tends to utter “I don’t know” after questions.)

So every new step of Avary’s reverberates in me. It’s as if he’s walking on a balancing beam, and I’m using all my energy to stay by his side in case he needs me to hold him steady.

Now, he’s driving away from me into a world where he must think quickly or crash. What if he really wasn’t ready to drive? What if I hadn’t done a good enough job of teaching him to navigate?

The Family Test Drive

The whole family was in the car the last time Avary drove. I asked my 21-year-old son, Elijah, to sit in the passenger’s seat and direct his younger brother to our destination. My daughter, Maya, and I sat in the back together.

I thought it would be a chance for big brother to guide younger bro. Boy-to-almost-man perspective, especially since their dad is not in the picture.

We weren’t even to the end of our block when my daughter rolled her eyes at me. “We’re going to die,” she whispered. She picked up her iPhone and started recording. “This may be my last story. Avary’s driving and Elijah is navigating,” she said to the screen.

Then, Elijah started the mantra he would recite for the next 20 minutes as he glared at his younger brother. “For God’s sake, Avary, would you drive faster, man? You can get a ticket for going below the speed limit, you know?” Elijah may not have been as gentle as I wanted with his younger brother, but it was another chance for Avary to learn from someone else.

Avary pushed on the gas to move the car a bit more quickly. The car turned a corner, “Go! Go! Go! Keep your foot on the gas,” Elijah shouted, exasperated.

My sister’s driveway was full of cars. We were the last ones there, but at least we were in one piece.

Avary Takes the Wheel

Now, as I darted from my bedroom to the driveway, I needed to ensure the same safe arrival would happen to Avary on his drive to school.

“You are going to hit the fence!” I yelled when I got to the driveway. Avary didn’t seem to hear me.

To be fair, Elijah and I had hit the fence several times already. We’d damaged our fair share of side mirrors, scratched the sides of cars, shattered a bumper, and dented the fence poles in a rush to get out of the driveway. But the fence itself had always withstood the blows. It doesn’t damage easily. No hint of dents or signs of our mishaps.

Avary didn’t move when I got to the driver’s side and talked into a closed window. He vacantly stared at me, like I was the one with a problem he didn’t understand.

I opened the car door. “You were about to hit the fence,” I explained.

“No, I wasn’t,” he said.

“The bumper was headed straight for it.” I sighed.

Not fazed, he said, “I was turning the wheel so I wouldn’t hit anything.”

Then, he looked down at my feet. At that moment, he could focus on nothing else. “Those are my shoes!”

I rocked in them a bit, holding my balance. I put on the first pair of shoes I found — his — as I raced out the doorway. “Yeah.”

“Take them off,” he said as he shut the car door. Then he grabbed the steering wheel and backed out.

Avary cleared the fence and started driving down our street toward his school. I watched, silently, hoping that he – and I – would survive his growth into manhood, just like our fence has survived all of our blows with little damage, and only a few signs of our mishaps.

Teenage Driving, Independence, and ADHD: Next Steps


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