Learning to drive is a huge, exciting step. Car keys mean freedom, responsibility, and a new kind of independence. But for some kids the symptoms of ADHD—inattention, distractibility, and poor judgment—can cause serious problems behind the wheel.
Research shows that kids with ADHD are more likely to get speeding tickets and moving violations, be involved in driving accidents, and have their licenses revoked. How can parents help kids with ADHD build the tools they need stay safe on the road?
Get an early start
The first step to helping kids become safe drivers happens outside the car. Conversations about ADHD and driving should begin early and happen often.
“A major part of facilitating strong skills is anticipating the kind of impact ADHD can have on driving long before the keys are in the ignition,” says clinical psychologist David Anderson, an expert on ADHD at the Child Mind Institute. “A lot of times we don’t start talking about the dangers ADHD can pose until after kids have already gotten a speeding ticket or had a small accident.”
Early intervention is the best way to avoid negative outcomes down the line.
Related: ADHD in Teenagers
Raise the safety issue
Be frank and open about the dangers, physical and legal, associated with driving, and focus on some of the ways ADHD can make things more complicated. Talking about the potential issues ADHD causes for young drivers—from impulsive speeding to distraction from other kids in the car—helps them be aware of trouble spots before they become a problem.
“Kids with ADHD are more prone to give into distractions across the board,” says Dr. Anderson. “Teens are usually already conscious of how ADHD affects them at school or in their social life so we try to help them bring that same awareness to how distractibility might cause problems when they’re driving.”
Discuss specific situations
Talking about potentially dangerous situations is a great way to help your child think them through on the couch before they come up in the car.
“Identify your worries, but be specific,” says Child Mind Institute clinical psychologist Matthew Rouse. “Clear expectations are easier to remember, especially when there’s a lot going on.”
Discuss specific scenarios that concern you, and follow up with reasonable solutions. “I’m worried about you driving safely” is true but not clear. Instead try: “Texting while driving is really dangerous, but I know it can be hard to ignore the phone when you get a message. Can we agree that you’ll leave your phone in the glove compartment until you get where you’re going?”
Common trouble spots
- Driving with friends in the car: Having other people in the car can be extremely distracting. Consider instituting a no-passengers policy with the caveat that you can reassess once your daughter becomes more comfortable behind the wheel. If she is ready to drive with friends in the car, have her practice asking them to be quieter.
- Driving in an unfamiliar place: Being in a new area is distracting in and of itself, but the real danger is navigational tools. Looking away from the road to check a GPS or map app isn’t safe. You might agree that she’ll pull over before typing info into the GPS, and only use the talking navigation while the car is in motion.
- Using the phone while driving: Talking, texting, tweeting, Instagramming—you name it: If it means using the phone while the car is in motion, it’s dangerous. This is a place where many parents lay down the law. Even if your teenager is not planning on using the phone, the call of the text message noise can be too tempting to avoid. The phone should be kept on vibrate and in the glove compartment while she’s on the road.
- Music: Loud music makes it hard to stay aware of what’s happening outside the car, and looking at the dash to change the radio means taking your eyes off the road. If your son is going to play music in the car, make an agreement that he’ll stick to a volume level that doesn’t block out other sound. To avoid the temptation to fiddle with the radio, agree that he’ll either choose a station and stay with it or put on a playlist that will last (with no skipping!) for the duration of the ride.
- Speeding: When it comes to staying safe, speeding is a big issue. If your son is in a hurry—as ADHD kids often are—the temptation to speed can be hard to resist. Talk honestly about the consequences of speeding, from getting expensive tickets to deadly accidents. Don’t sensationalize or sugarcoat. Discuss safety precautions and agree on reasonable repercussions if he breaks the rules. That way if he gets a ticket, everyone knows what to expect.
- Weather: If there’s a serious rainstorm, or traffic is really bad, you might agree that he’ll pull over until things calm down.
“The more you talk and plan,” says Dr. Anderson, “the more you can be sure they’re first and foremost thinking about safety while they’re on the road.”
Make a contract
Once you’ve talked through the potential difficulties, it’s important to set clear, easy-to-follow ground rules that won’t go in one ear and out the other. For starters: “Always wear your seatbelt, no matter what.” One way to do this is to create a safe driving contract.
“When things are written out and there’s been some time spent going over them, it can be very helpful for both kids and parents,” suggests Dr. Rouse. Contracts might seem cheesy, he says, but done right they can be very effective. “Even if kids are reluctant at first, contracts do work. Writing things down helps everyone agree on and remember what is, and isn’t, safe behavior.”
- Kids should participate in making the contract. It’s an agreement, not a dictate.
- Work with kids to create reasonable expectations, consequences, and incentives. If a kid goes 6 months without a ticket, she might gain the right to pick friends up after school. Likewise, if she doesn’t wear her seatbelt, she’ll lose car privileges for a set amount of time.
- Contracts should be really clear and revisited often.
Medication should also be a part of the conversation, says Dr. Anderson. “Kids who take medication when they drive to school in the morning may need to do things differently on the way home when the meds are wearing off.”
Likewise, if your child doesn’t normally take medication on weekends but she plans to drive on weekends, it might be time to talk about changing the schedule. Any plan for changing medications should include a driving break until it’s clear how she reacts to the new regime.
Express confidence, not anxiety
Finally, offer support and talk about other situations she’s handled well in the past.
Reminding her of successes refocuses the conversation on her abilities, not her challenges. “Talk to kids about ADHD and how it can make things more difficult in a developmentally appropriate way, but be sure to communicate confidence as well as concern,” says Dr. Rouse.
Let her know that having ADHD doesn’t mean she can’t become a great driver—it just means she has to do things a little differently and be more self aware.
“Remind kids that staying smart and being careful are the hallmarks of any good driver,” says Dr. Anderson.
It’s totally normal to feel anxious when your child starts driving—just be mindful about the way you express that anxiety. The end goal is to help her stay safe and build confidence in her abilities.
“Ultimately,” says Dr. Rouse, “We’re deliverers of hope. We want to be clear and realistic about the difficulties while still focusing on what is possible.”