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How I tried to stop my dad's road rage

Ann Lang has always found driving with her dad, Sheldon, stressful - and her mother has refused to get in the car with him. It's time for reinforcements.

Ann Lang has always found driving with her dad, Sheldon, stressful. It's time to call in reinforcements

Ann Lang's parents do not drive together well. (Ann Lang)
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Contributed by Ann Lang

For as long as I can remember, driving with my parents Elaine and Sheldon has been stressful. As a kid, I would sit in the back seat watching my dad tense up and shout at other drivers while my mom would yell at him to calm down.

I remember thinking: "Why is he yelling at people who can't hear him? The only people who can hear him are the ones in this car. And we didn't do anything wrong."

From time to time, I would try to explain this to my dad. He said he understood and would try not to get excited, but stressed the real problem was the other drivers on the road.

In my dad's defence (which will be brief!), most of his time behind the wheel has been spent on the pothole-ridden, constantly-under-construction roads in Montreal, populated with other drivers who are often in rage mode. If you've driven in that city, you've probably noticed a culture of aggressive driving (hence the reason the island of Montreal is one of the only two cities in North America where turning right on a red is still illegal).

After I moved to Toronto, got married and had a kid, I told my parents I wanted to see them as often as I could. I adore them and it's so important to me that they also have a close relationship with my husband and daughter. They made good on their promise to visit almost every month. But late last year, my mom got fed up.

"That's it!" she declared right after the five-and-a-half hour drive from Montreal.

I'm not driving with daddy anymore. I can't do it. He's driving me crazy in the car.- Elaine Lang

I didn't have to ask for details. I already understood.

My mother is not a fan of highway driving and I knew she would never do the Montreal-Toronto drive on her own.

"I'll take the train," she said. I protested: "But then you might not visit as often! I'll talk to him!"

Ann Lang's father, Sheldon, has spent most of his driving years behind the wheel in Montreal. (Ann Lang)

Road rage intervention

I connected with Dr. Vivien Lee, a psychologist who specializes in anger management, and asked her to go for a drive with my dad while talking about his road rage. She loved the idea, and to my surprise and delight, my dad agreed to participate.

Dr. Lee identified with my dad's driving frustration. She had experienced her own road rage when she was a grad student commuting between London, Ont., and Toronto. That's when she learned to practice deep breathing, be present and mindful in the car, and to question her assumptions about other drivers.

When another driver would cut her off, Dr. Lee would think to herself: "I don't know if this guy did it on purpose ... But I'm not going to stop my car in traffic and get out and ask him why he cut me off ... so I had to stop and change how I was thinking about it and realized it's not worth it."

Elaine Lang has threatened to no longer drive on the highway with her husband, Sheldon. (Ann Lang)

I suggested we pull over and try a breathing exercise together (again, I was surprised my dad was game for this). Dr. Lee instructed him to breathe in for four seconds, fill his belly with air and then breathe out slowly.

After a few minutes of deep breathing, my dad acknowledged he felt different. Dr. Lee suggested he do this exercise every day so that the deep breathing would become second nature when he started to feel stressed.

The next morning, I asked him how the breathing exercises were going. He hadn't done them yet.

"But you'll try?" I asked with wide please-dad-please eyes.

"Absolutely," he smiled. But I was skeptical.

Better driving through breathing

Two days later, while chatting about that car ride, I asked again if he did the breathing exercise in an obviously-the-answer-is-no tone of voice.

"Yeah, it was good," he replied nonchalantly while watching TV.

I was shocked and amazed: "ARE YOU SERIOUS?! NO WAY!?"

"Yeah, it was no big deal."

Can deep breathing change the way Sheldon Lang drives? His daughter Ann hopes so. (Ann Lang)

Is this a turning point? Will he continue? I have no idea. But I do feel optimistic.

I didn't think my dad would be open to talking about any of this. I had never heard him explain why expressing anger was a form of stress relief, as opposed to keeping it bottled up inside.

But in his next breath, he also acknowledged that driving with him could be "torture" for anyone else in the car. These statements alone felt like milestones.

The fact that he didn't hesitate to speak to Dr. Lee or think twice about the breathing exercise was shocking (my dad is the last person I could ever picture in meditation mode!).

I'll continue to check in with him and remind (nudge) him to put Dr. Lee's advice into practice. It may be a long road ahead, but I think he's on the way.

'Is this a turning point? Will he continue? I have no idea. But I do feel optimistic,' said Ann Lang of her father's aggressive driving. (Ann Lang)

Originally aired March, 2019

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