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Teens Get Licensed to Drive; Parents Get Driven to Distraction : The rite of passage typifies the familiar struggle between young people seeking freedom and adults learning to let go.

July 13, 1993|SHERRY ANGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Parents whose teen-agers have just become licensed drivers aren't likely to find comfort in the knowledge that countless other mothers and fathers have managed to get through this ordeal with their sanity, their automobile and their family still intact.

This rite of passage raises the blood pressure of even the most laid-back parents and gives nightmares to worriers who have a penchant for imagining worst-case scenarios.

Andrea Kaye, a Santa Ana therapist whose 15-year-old stepson is learning to drive this summer, says there ought to be a support group for parents of new drivers, because this stage of child rearing makes just about every challenge that has come before look easy.

According to Kaye, parents have little preparation for the leap toward adulthood that driving represents: "Kids go from bicycle to car, with no bridge in between."

Giving a high school student control of a car not only produces anxiety, it may also lead to intense conflict between parents and teens, and the issues are usually much deeper than the age-old debate over driving privileges and responsibilities.

While arguments may focus on such questions as who gets to use the family car when or who pays for what, the tension can often be traced to an emotional tug of war: the teen's desire for freedom versus the parent's need for control.

When 16-year-old Becky Edwards of Westminster got her driving permit several months ago, she and her parents had a number of heated discussions over the question of when she would get her driver's license.

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Becky, naturally, wanted to have the car to herself as soon as possible. But her mother, Cindy, would tell her: "Just because you have your permit doesn't mean that three weeks later you can get your license. You have to wait until you're ready."

Becky worried that her parents would never think she was ready. "She thought we were still trying to control her life or that we were afraid to let go--and she was partly right," Cindy says. "As parents, we do everything we can to protect our kids, and that is an issue of control because we determine what they do and where they go. When you turn that over to them, it's a fearful thing, and it's hard to let go.

"It's not that I don't trust her. I just don't know what kind of situation she's going to encounter when she drives. I'm afraid of getting that phone call that says she's been in an accident."

Becky says her parents seem to be "slowly changing their minds" about how much practice she should have before she's allowed to solo. They even seem open to the possibility of her getting a driver's license by the end of summer.

"Lately, they like the idea of me driving a little better," Becky says. "They've been allowing me to drive more than when I first started because they trust me. I'm not making as many mistakes, so they don't feel their life is endangered."

However, she adds matter-of-factly, her parents' attitude toward the idea of her driving seems to fluctuate with their emotions: "It depends on how much they want to let go that day."

Many parents are reluctant to let go because of the fears that come up when they picture their teen-ager at the wheel of an automobile.

Some of those fears are fueled by the driving records of teen-agers. For example, 838,400 drivers ages 15 to 19 were involved in auto accidents in California in 1991; of those, 41,307 were injured and 634 died, according to Angel Johnson, a public affairs officer in the California Highway Patrol's Santa Ana office.

Johnson also pointed out that, in 1991, 4.2% of all California drivers were age 15 to 19, yet this age group accounted for 10.1% of all fatal accidents and 10.3% of all injury accidents statewide.

It isn't just accidents that parents worry about. Andrea Kaye identified a number of concerns that keep parents from sleeping soundly, including the fear that teen-age drivers will take risks on the road because they feel invincible, get lost or have a car problem that leaves them stranded in a dangerous neighborhood, leave the house without money for gas, discover back-seat sex or become so independent that they spend nearly all their waking hours away from home.

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Kaye stresses that, although these fears are understandable, it's important for parents to try to control their anxiety so that it doesn't cause them to become overly protective--or turn their teen-agers into nervous drivers.

Kaye says parents should help teens develop a "healthy respect for what a car can do"--without giving them a litany of warnings as they walk out the door.

"Be positive--until something happens," she advises.

She also recommends that parents take some practical steps to give themselves peace of mind when they turn over the car keys to their teen-agers. For example, she plans to ease her own anxiety by giving her stepson an Automobile Club membership and a gas credit card for emergencies.

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