Driving with someone who is intoxicated is scary in more ways than one. There’s that primary, visceral fear that twists your stomach every time a car whizzes by or the driver swerves, and then there’s that secondary fear — the fear of speaking up. Intoxicated people can be unpredictable. They can get angry. You know you have to find a way to make them pull over, but if they get angry or even more distracted, there’s no telling how that might compound an already horrifying situation.
As an adult, that fear is bad enough. As a child, mustering up the courage to demand something of an adult can be absolutely monumental. And when that adult is your parent, it can even feel downright paralyzing. But two Nebraska children found themselves in that very situation when their father became intoxicated before and during a nightmare vacation drive. They did what had to be done, and their bravery may have saved not just their own lives but the lives of other people on the road that day.
Ethan and Mackenzie Behrens, who are 12 and 14 years old, respectively, were headed to Colorado with their father, Jason Behrens, for a vacation with him when it became very clear that he was incapable of driving. The siblings told local news outlet 14 News that the harrowing drive had them terrified, describing the sound of other cars blowing past them as their father swerved in and out of traffic. They begged him to pull over, but when he wouldn’t, insisting he was sober, they devised a very simple plan.
The Nebraska county they were in has a 911 text alert system, so Mackenzie typed out a quick text message, and she and Ethan agreed that if their father swerved again, they would press send. He did, so they did. Still, that meant the police had to come and locate the car, which Behrens was still refusing to pull over, so his children coaxed him into stopping for a bite to eat before they got on the highway proper. That did the trick, and it gave police time to find the family. When they did, Behrens’ blood alcohol level was almost three times the legal limit, and he was still drinking; cops found alcohol in his cup.
Behrens was arrested, and the children’s mother was contacted to come pick up Ethan and Mackenzie, who credit the responding officers with saving their lives. They are probably right about that, not to mention the fact that because they were able to get their dad off the road before hitting the highway, it’s more than possible they saved other lives as well.
That these two children had the presence of mind to contact police and do whatever they had to to keep themselves safe when their father refused is certainly something extraordinary, especially given how young they both are. But the fact that they were also able to stand up to a parent who was acting recklessly takes real guts. It’s more than a little heartbreaking to hear how deeply they understand the situation with their father, explaining that the decision was hard but necessary. It’s right to admire that kind of maturity, but it’s also appropriate to acknowledge that they shouldn’t have to have it. Parents are supposed to keep children safe, even if that means from themselves.
Above all, though, it’s a real reminder that kids need to hear that it’s all right to stand up to adults who are doing the wrong thing and to take it a step further — to stand up to parents who are.
Behrens, we hope, has gotten the wake-up call he needed to get himself some real help. If he does sober up, chances are high he won’t see what his kids did as a betrayal or disrespect. He will understand that they were doing what he was incapable of — protecting his children. As parents, we can’t imagine losing control of our faculties when we’re with our kids and doing anything at all that would compromise their safety.
Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. Parents are human and as flawed as anyone else. Usually it doesn’t do lasting damage, and as our kids grow, they learn that they’ll have their own flaws to contend with.
But when these flaws roll over into harmful territory — when parents succumb to addiction or anger or illness or something else entirely — children need to know they have the right to get the help that their parents are incapable of giving them. We need to tell them that it’s OK to stand up to a parent who could hurt them or has the potential to. Then, we need to work as hard as humanly possible to make sure they never have to.