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The truth about teens.

Supporting your adolescent in the development of healthy driving habits

Adolescence is an incredibly important time in development, and yet, the mere mention of it can strike fear into most parents! This may be especially so if you have a teen that is the proud bearer of a new driver’s license and will now be behind the wheel. No matter how overwhelming it can feel to guide your child through this stage of growth, adolescence is actually not just to be, survived. It is instead a time when parents can really step in alongside their teen and help them thrive. To that end, a little understanding about what is happening in your teen’s brain can be really instrumental.

Humans have the longest period of dependency of any mammalian species. The human brain doesn’t reach full maturity until somewhere between 25 and 30 years of age. A little earlier in that range for females and a little later for males. The human brain follows two universal patterns of growth – bottom-up and back-to-front. The “bottom” of the brain houses a lot of the neural circuitry that will eventually allow for emotional regulation. The “front” of the brain houses the neural circuitry related to executive functioning, including such things as impulse control, attention span, and the ability to scan and focus all at the same time.

Let’s now take these brain growth patterns and align them developmentally with three resulting realities of adolescence:

  1. Novelty seeking: Your adolescent’s brain’s reward circuits are very fired up! It isn’t about moderation and “good choices.” It is about soaking up life. This means that risky behaviors will necessarily be more prevalent so that thrill can be emphasized while consequences are minimized, encouraging much exploration as part of development. Your adolescent is going to be all about living big. And they will need you as a tempering influence.
  2. Peer orientation awakens: Your adolescent is going to be much more focused on peers and friendships than ever before. This is a time when humans, as a social species, really extend meaningful emotional connections beyond their inner circle. However, guidance and leadership from you – the adult – continues to be very important because your novelty-seeking teen is going to continue to need some moderation from you as this will not be terribly available from their similarly novelty-seeking peers.
  3. Intensity is the name of the game: Everything is bigger in adolescence. Emotions, fun, pleasure, excitement. This can make for a lot of big feelings and a lot of interesting, sometimes over the top, behaviors to match. While it creates a keen zest for life, once again it requires some wise balancing influence from the adults.

Now consider that your novelty seeking, peer oriented, intensity-focused teen is also the proud owner of a new driver’s license. Whoa! That is a reality check right there. Despite your teen looking and acting more and more like an adult, they need you now as much as ever. Adolescence is not about shoving kids into unbridled independence but rather about inviting healthy interdependence where they really do still get to rely on you for safeguards and balances. 

Via neuroplasticity – the brain’s openness to external influence in terms of how it actually wires up – your guidance at this stage in life will serve to facilitate optimal growth. From the outside, you create the habits and discipline to guide your teen so that on the inside their brain is neurologically following suite. Sometimes developmental psychologists call this “laddering up.” It is like you add one rung on the ladder at a time, gradually walking your growing child into healthy habits, skills, and independence by adulthood. 

This is exactly where teaching healthy habits, using concrete directives, examples, and feedback, comes into play. The more frequently habits are encouraged, backed-up by action, and modeled by example, the more likely you are to secure another rung on the ladder of development for your adolescent. And all the while, you are literally growing neural connections in your teen’s brain.

Life360 Driver Reports are an ideal example of how this can play out. You, the in-the-lead parent, determine installation and provide the directive for use as a condition of your teen getting behind the wheel themselves, or with a friend. Together with your teen you discuss how the data from the app will be monitored and used so that safety is ensured and that your teen’s ability to drive safely and responsibly is supported and celebrated. It isn’t about finding them messing up but rather about having a tool that helps you help them develop good driving habits.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that at least 3,166 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in 2017, including texting and driving. Considering nearly all teens (95 percent according to PEW Research Center) have a smartphone, distracted driving is a very serious risk and a major concern for parents. In today’s digital world there is tech that can help, like Life360’s weekly distracted driving report that shows distracted driving behaviors such as texting and driving. When you can connect with your teen in loving and supportive ways using data from a tech aid like Life360 Driver Reports, you are optimally positioned to step in as the requisite tempering influence and refocus towards responsible habits.

There has been a lot of research into why habits form, as well as what it takes to break bad habits. As it happens, texting while driving is an easy habit to fall into because it has such a huge reward attached to it – that of social connection. To break that habit, or to prevent its formation in the first place, researchers uniformly suggest that behavioral repetition and consistency of context are key.

So how does that translate into real life? Let’s say you sit down daily or weekly with your teen and look at his or her Life360 Driver Report on their mobile device. This routine satisfies the behavioral repetition requirement for habit formation/change as you do it over and over again. It also satisfies the consistency of context requirement as you are constantly reviewing the Driver Report results each week, showing details of the drive and where specifically the distracted driving behavior occurred. The feedback loop that is therein created to reinforce positive behaviors and discourage negative behaviors can become an important priming condition for ensuring responsible habits become deeply ingrained.

This might be a good time to also point out that as you review your teen’s driving habits, your own driving habits are likely to garner some attention. As part of really working to inspire responsible habits for your teen, you will want to ensure you are modelling the same. You might find that this creates a great opportunity for you to tune up your own driving, leading by example on how to transform less than ideal habits into something much better.

So as it turns out, adolescence is not something to be feared. And it is a time in your child’s development where they really need you. This is not the time to retire but rather the time to be incredibly available for guidance and direction. Your teen needs your leadership, your moderating presence, and your solid example of what it is to be the kind of human who regulates impulses, tempers intensity of emotions and experience, evaluates risk, and is able to put all of that together to make solid, in the moment decisions. Behind the wheel or anywhere. Show up. Be present. Watch them grow. You’ve got this.

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe joined Life360 in March 2019 as a Family Expert to help further the company’s mission of keeping families safe and connected. Dr. Lapointe is an Author, parenting expert, and registered psychologist. 

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