Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Will I Know When My Teen Is Ready to Drive?

Your teen is chomping at the bit to get his driver’s license, but you’re worried that his ADHD symptoms of distraction or impulsivity will become dangerous behind the wheel. Here, learn how parents can assess their child’s readiness for driving.

Q: “Our oldest son, who has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD), is almost old enough to get his driver’s license. His being able to drive would be a huge help to our family — we could really use his help driving his younger siblings around to their many commitments. Over the course of teaching him to drive, however, we’ve become nervous about how he’s progressing. There are times when he pays a great deal of attention behind the wheel, and others when his reaction time seems off or he gets easily distracted. Another problem is his memory — he can’t remember to pick up his towels or put in his contact lenses every day, but he insists he’s ready to drive. How can we be sure?”

For starters, forgetting to pick up towels and forgetting to put in contact lenses are two very different things! For obvious safety reasons, before your teen starts driving, he’ll need to prove that he’s able to remember his contacts on a consistent basis.

But even if he remembered his contacts every day, driving is still a big responsibility in and of itself — and the fact is that kids with ADHD have a higher rate of motor vehicle accidents than do kids who don’t have ADHD. For that reason, and many others, you need to make it clear to your teen that driving is a privilege, not a right.

Of course, there are some kids with ADHD who are excellent drivers. Your son may very well become one of them! As a parent, you should drive with your teen often, to get a sense of how he is behind the wheel. Drive with him at different times of day, and emphasize what specifically he needs to work on — many teens with ADHD are able to hyperfocus on learning to drive if they want it badly enough, which can lead to more positive results. If your teen is taking medication, make sure he’s getting coverage every time he gets behind the wheel. Establish ground rules from Day 1 — like his phone must be off while he’s driving, and no one under 25 is allowed to ride with him (younger siblings excluded, of course).

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

If, after consistent practice sessions, you honestly don’t think he’s ready to be on his own, that needs to take precedent — no matter how helpful it would be for him to shuttle his younger siblings places. Sadly, when kids who aren’t ready are given licenses, tragedy can happen very quickly.

Learning to drive — and learning to drive safely — is an ongoing process. Even if your teen reaches a point where you think he’s ready for his license, it’s important that you have a long, serious discussion with him about the responsibility that entails. Tell your teen that, even if he drives well, the biggest problem on the road is often not his actions — often, he’ll have to react quickly and decisively to the unpredictable actions of other drivers. Explain that there are many things he simply can’t learn in Driver’s Ed class, and he needs to be prepared for anything. And explain that, because you care so much about him, if he can’t drive safely or follow the rules you’ve laid out, he won’t be allowed to drive — and stay true to your word. When it comes to driving and ADHD, caution is always key.

Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

This advice came from “The Teen Years with ADHD: A Practical, Proactive Parent’s Guide,” an April 2018 ADDitude webinar lead by Thomas Brown, Ph.D., that is now available for free replay here.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.