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Dad, Phone Down! Mom, Stop Texting! Many Parents Set Bad Examples For Teen Drivers

In this December 2009 file photo, Tina Derby sends text messages while driving in Concord, New Hampshire. (Jim Cole/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this December 2009 file photo, Tina Derby sends text messages while driving in Concord, New Hampshire. (Jim Cole/AP)

Parents, is this scenario familiar? You’re driving the kids home from school. As always, there’s plenty to do, plenty on your mind. You stop at a red light, grab your phone, and check your email, scrolling as fast as you can before the light turns green. The guy behind you lands on the horn the moment the light changes. So you press the gas pedal, and then raise your eyes from your phone. It’s not that you hit anyone. No harm done. Right?

Or take another familiar scenario. You’re on the road, driving your teen and a teammate to a soccer game. You told another parent to give you a call with directions to the high school field where the match is being held. The phone rings and you immediately reach for it and take the call. And your 17-year-old in the front seat grumbles, “Mom, would you put the phone down and pay attention? You tell me not to do this!”

What can you say?

I know many of you reading this will feel uncomfortable. My job is not to shame you. I just want to point out the obvious: We’re all hostages of the digital age. We’re all guilty of the irresistible impulse to reach for the phone -- to check directions, to look at the newest text, to see who is calling -- and sometimes to pick up the phone and talk.

You know the statistics on teen texting while driving are scary: Four in 10 admit to it. Let me share some new statistics on parental behavior, some of which are even scarier. I advise the group Students Against Destructive Decisions, which has teamed up with Liberty Mutual Insurance to study teen driving. Their recent survey of 2,500 teens and 1,000 parents of teen drivers found:

• 50 percent of parents have knowingly texted their teen while the teen is driving. About a third of these parents expect a response before the teen reaches their destination. (And teens say that when driving, they are most likely to respond quickest when a call or text comes from a parent.)

• 55 percent of parents say they use apps while driving. Nearly a third of teens have asked them to stop. (And 68 percent of teens admit to using apps while driving.)

• 62 percent of parents say they use their phone to check incoming calls and/or talk while driving, either by holding the phone or using headphones or hands-free speakers. Three quarters of teens say they have seen their parents do this, and 50 percent have asked them to stop.

And while we're at it:

• 45 percent of parents admit they speed while driving -- and 43 percent of teens say they've asked them to slow down.

• 34 percent of parents say they drive while drowsy or tired -- and 35 percent of teens say they have asked them to stop.

• 25 percent of parents report they drive aggressively — and 47 percent of teens have asked them to stop.

This is not a pretty picture. And it’s really not good enough to say, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Why not? Because parents are the ultimate role models for our kids. No matter how old, our kids watch what we do and how we respond to others around us -- to our spouses, friends and kids themselves.

It would be easy for me to just say, “Stop it!” but that will never work. We’re all fallible. So what can we do? Here are some tips for helping all of us drive more responsibly.

1. Open A Conversation

Parents and teens need to have open conversations about the risks and benefits of driving. Liberty Mutual has a Teen Driving Contract that may be a useful guide. As a clinical psychiatrist, I know that behavioral “contracts” really don’t work. We don’t live by the letter of the law. But you can think of the contract as a conversation opener -- as a way to talk with your teen about distracted driving -- about the use of apps, phone calls, texting while driving, speeding, use of substances when driving, and about monitoring yourself when you are driving drowsy, or in a volatile emotional state.

These conversations are best started when your kids are young -- way before they are getting ready to drive. The earlier you engage them in these conversations (in fact, the earlier you engage them in any type of conversation), the easier it will be to bring up sensitive topics in the future.

And please remember to make these two-way discussions. The last thing our kids want is a lecture.

2. Be Transparent And Real

We all make mistakes. Haven't you usually learned the most in the face of a failure? As one famous psychiatrist said about parenting, “We succeed by our failures.”

There is nothing a teen appreciates more than you admitting your mistake when you mess up. So, when you grab your phone, when you speed or drive aggressively, admit it. Talk about what was behind your behavior. Hearing your explanation for your misbehavior will make your teen likelier to reflect when they misbehave. Transparent conversations help us all become more mindful of our intentions and actions.

For example, if you know that you’re texting or calling your teen when they are behind the wheel, you are putting them at risk. If you have done this, let them know you realize it was not the right thing to do. And if it was an emergency, you can talk about how to respond -- like pulling over and stopping the car. This particular conversation may not only help your teen appreciate the safest way to respond, but also help you curb your impulse to contact them if it's not urgently necessary.

3. Set Clear Consequences

While teens will often not admit it, they all want and need clear guidelines for behavior. Our role as parents is to set limits, define what is OK and what is not, and what the price is for violating agreements. They also want their consequences to be firm and fair.

4. Set A Good Example 

As the study shows, we parents are not following the rules required of our teens when it comes to app use, speeding or talking on our phones when driving. We can do better. Rules are rules. We all need to accept them and take responsibility for our actions.

Given the survey data, we, as parents have much to admit and correct. And many teens are calling us out on our hypocrisy. It’s important for us to fess up. As the data shows, our kids are watching.

Dr. Gene Beresin is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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