It’s a standard practice in our house, that when our kids are leaving to go out with friends, to a movie, to the mall, etc., that they call or text when they arrive at their destination, heading home, or if plans have changed. I will never forget the night I took the call that every parent dreads receiving. My teenage daughter, who was out with her friends, is crying hysterically and between sobs, I can make out the fact that she has been involved in a car accident. My heart plummeted and I started shaking. At that moment, I never realized how much of a crucial role we would have guiding our daughter through the life lesson of how to handle trauma and adversity.
Unfortunately, one-fifth of all first-year drivers will be in an accident. As a parent, this means that you may be on the other end of this same kind of phone call at some point in your life. Knowing how to react in this circumstance can provide comfort to your teen after the traumatic event and help them regain confidence about their driving abilities. Here are a few things I learned along the way that might help.
Don’t Freak Out and Yell
As a parent, the instinct to yell due to anger, worry, or fear can kick in. Hearing that my child had just been in a car accident was a harrowing experience, and my adrenaline kicked into high gear. But knowing that my daughter was already feeling traumatized and terrified, I did my best to keep this instinct in check and recognize that what she needed now was someone to rescue her and make her feel safe.
Yelling would have only made the situation worse. Even though she had caused the accident, I assured her that “everything will be ok”. Thankfully, she was alive and relatively unhurt and I wanted to make sure she knew that we loved her no matter what. She is way more important than metal and money.
Get to the Scene of the Accident
If there is any way for you to immediately get to the scene of the accident, it will help your teen feel safer in many ways. Knowing our daughter was emotionally overwhelmed and struggling to process the events that just unfolded, I knew we had to get to the scene as quickly as possible. By being there, we were able to help calm her down enough that she was able to reconstruct what happened. Your presence will not only be supportive but useful in a practical sense when dealing with a police officer, an insurance agent, and later meeting with an attorney.
Have Your Teen Participate In the Aftermath
Understanding how to handle paperwork, talk to insurance adjusters, learning how settlement offers work, and whether the car will be totaled or repaired, are all significant decisions that needed to be made. We considered this an opportunity for our daughter to begin to take her first steps as an adult in the real world. Having her by our side as we navigated this process helped her understand and internalize what a complex adult situation can entail. Additionally, having her participate in the aftermath of the accident helped her begin to regain some self-esteem and confidence in herself, especially since she had a significant role in the process of restoring life as she knew it back to normal.
Dealing with Your Teen’s Emotional Health
Even if your teen was not severely physically injured, there can still be a deep impact on them emotionally that will take time to heal. Our daughter experienced nightmares and even had reservations of just riding in a car shortly after the accident, let alone being terrified by the idea of getting behind the wheel again. Here are some ways we were able to assist our daughter with her emotional health after her car accident that helped her regain confidence.
We were gentle and took things slowly. We helped her understand that being in a car accident is common and most people have had the unfortunate luck to experience one, but also didn’t pressure her to get back to driving before she was really ready.
We had to not let our own fear of the “what ifs” take hold during this time. This became true for us and our daughter as we couldn’t help but play the ‘what if she had been seriously hurt or worse’ scenarios over and over in our head. The accident is over, none of that occurred and we had to let it go.
We dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress through the process, but it was very helpful to have friends and other family members to talk with as we worked through everything.
We also made sure to talk to our daughter, early and often. It was important to take her emotional temperature often to see how she was doing after this traumatic event. We also wanted to make sure she knew that we are always here for her, no matter what.
Our daughter had a difficult time being able to quiet the anxiety and guilt over being the cause of the car accident. We decided to implement additional counseling with a professional.
Get Your Teen Back in the Driver’s Seat
Getting back in the driver’s seat is probably the most important step for your teen to rebuild their confidence after an accident. For us, we decided to get her back in the car for our first outing within a week of the accident. We were concerned that waiting too long would make the anxiety and fear she was already experiencing increase to more frenzied levels. We never let her drive alone for a few weeks and one of us was always with her to offer emotional support and instruction as needed.
We also enrolled her in some additional driving lessons outside of what we could offer. Defensive driving is not an inherent skill, but one that is learned. The extra instruction in a controlled environment from someone that wasn’t her parents provided her the extra skills she needed to feel safe driving again and regain even more confidence.
I hope you never get that call and your teen never experiences a car accident. However, if that day comes, perhaps our experience will help you in the stressful moments following the days and weeks after the crisis. We found it incredibly reassuring knowing that we did everything we could to help our teenage daughter regain her confidence after a car accident and were able to provide valuable skills that she can carry with her into adulthood.