Mood Disorders and Teenage Driving

Question: My child is turning 16 next year and expects to have a driver’s license and access to a car because his siblings all had their license as soon as they could legally drive. What are some good rules you have regarding your child with mood disorders or bipolar and driving?


Answer: Driving for many teens is a rite of passage and can mean a lot to them. For a teenager this means they can more easily get a job, drive themselves to and from personal appointments, help run errands for the family, visit friends, go on dates, and it represents a step towards adulthood. 


But while the state determines the chronological age a teen is legally allowed to apply for a driver’s license, not every teenager is ready at that age. 


Most parents have expectations and rules regarding driving for their children, regardless of whether they are neurotypical or neurodivergent. Common expectations may include things like good school attendance, good grades, completed chores, and the ability to independently pay or contribute to gas or insurance costs. Common rules may include limiting the number of friends allowed in the car, not driving while using the cell phone, being home by a set curfew, and not receiving any speeding tickets. 


When a child lives with a medical condition or mental health disorder, additional considerations may need to be present in order for driving to be safe for your teenager and others who share the road with them.


When parents find themselves trying to assess if their teen who lives with a mood disorder is ready to drive, there are some important factors to consider that can help increase safety. Here are some questions parents should ask themselves as well as tools they can use to help track moods and symptoms. 


1. Is your child taking their medication everyday as prescribed by their doctor? 


It is not unusual for teenagers to want to be like everyone else and resist the idea they have a serious illness which requires mindful and careful monitoring. The teen years are about developing more independence and agency regarding everyday choices. It’s normal for them to want to exercise more control over their body. But sometimes they may conclude because they feel better they no longer need medication. 


Teenagers want to be like their friends and most of their friends are not taking medications to manage a serious illness. Parents need to have a system in place to ensure their children are continuing to take medication as prescribed. Teenagers should also know all the medications they are taking and what each medication does. If they are in an emergency situation there may be an urgent need for medical professionals to have their current medications, the name of their prescribing doctors, and the pharmacy they use. 


2. Is your teenager attending all of their doctor and mental health visits? 


It is important for teens and young adults to keep all doctor appointments, provide input during visits, and be an active participant for therapy sessions. The more engaged your child is in their healthcare, the more likely they will see the benefits of compliance to treatment plans and interventions. Having a rule that in order to drive your teen must attend and participate in doctor and therapy appointments also means there are professionals outside of your family who are also observing and assessing mood stability. Doctors and therapists can help provide additional options to managing moods.


3. Is your child’s mood stable? 


Your teenager can share with you how they are feeling and you can observe their symptoms. For most people, moods are a persistent or semi-persistent state of being that can last minutes, to hours, to days, and even weeks. Moods are heavily influenced by biology, physiology, environment, and mental state. 


When you have a child who lives with a mood disorder and is also driving, tracking their moods over time can help you and your teenager determine if it is safe for them to be behind the wheel. 


It is important a driver is not easily distracted, anxious, sad, depressed, scared, irritable, easily annoyed, or engaging in impulsive risky behaviors. 

4. How do you and your child keep track of moods, symptoms, and medication compliance? 

Having a mood tracker, such as the CMHRC Toolkit, that carefully records symptoms, moods, and medication compliance over time helps parents assess if their child is ready to be a responsible driver. CMHRC’s Toolkit is an excellent tool to track if medication, other interventions, and factors may be contributing to specific mood shifts or prolonged undesirable mood episodes. CMHRC’s Toolkit provides graphs and visual representations of changes in mood, symptoms, medications, and other interventions that can provide you with insight into what changes or adjustments can be made to decrease symptoms. 


Teenagers who live with mood disorders, bipolar, or Fear of Harm can have jobs, volunteer, date, have friends, drive, and engage in healthy adolescent activities. Just like teenagers who live with juvenile diabetes and have to manage their blood sugars, kids with mood disorders also have to learn how to manage their symptoms so they can enjoy this time in their life. 

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