Teen Series: (Part 9 of 15) Basic Car Maintenance

Hey there, mom or dad of a future independent driver! Can you believe you just clicked to read a post about teaching your teen basic car maintenance? How did we get here?? Remember when your teen was testing for their permit, and you spent all that time on the passenger side, clenching the seat belt and your phone? (Hi, hello, that was me.)

I am deep in the phase of prepping my teen for flying the coop, which is why this teen series was born! As he prepares to spread his wings and hit the road on his own adventures, there’s one essential skill that’ll keep my kid cruising confidently: basic car maintenance.

Knowing how to take care of their car is more than just a rite of passage; it’s a ticket to independence and a safer journey on the open road, even if it’s just from their apartment to the local Whataburger. So, before they hit the highways of adulthood, let’s go over some basic car maintenance knowledge every teenager should have. Deep breath!


Changing a tire

You’re cruising down the road when suddenly, you hear that dreaded thump-thump sound. Or worse, a pop and your car starts veering. Yep, it’s a flat tire. Fear not, because knowing how to change a tire is number one at the top of the basics. I am confident that your kiddo can learn this, in case of an emergency. No “crescent allen” necessary (Season 3, Ep. 21) 😉.

Here’s how to do it:

A. Locate the Spare

First, find your spare tire, jack, and lug wrench (usually in the trunk). As their parent, here is where you go over this and make sure they know exactly where to find these, and how to access them. My spare is underneath my floorboards behind the driver’s seat, so I have to remove tons of stuff to get to it, even scooching seats back. Ensure your teen can handle that if they get stuck in this situation. I had no clue when it first happened to me, and I was on my hands and knees looking under the outside of my vehicle on the side of a highway. NOT. FUN.

B. Stay Safe

If they can manage it, make sure they know to steer their car to then park on a flat, stable surface, as far away from oncoming traffic as possible. Tell them to engage their emergency brake, and turn on hazard lights. Safety first!

C. Jack it Up

Ensure they know where the jack is (normally the trunk!) and how to use it properly. Take the time to show them ahead of time where exactly to place it on their vehicle to ensure stability. Then show them how to use the jack to lift the car off the ground. I remember the first time I was able to do this myself. It’s an incredibly freeing feeling knowing that you will not be stranded with something as minor as a flat tire.

D. Loosen the Lug Nuts

Use the lug wrench (again, make sure they know what this is and where to find it) to loosen the lug nuts (but don’t remove them just yet). Some older cars may require some more force to release these. I always have trouble with mine – probably because it’s an older car! Go over it with your child so they know how much force to apply in order to loosen theirs.

And let them do it themselves. Hands on is always better than just showing them.

E. Replace the Tire

Here’s the fun part. Carefully remove the flat tire, replace it with the spare, and hand-tighten the lug nuts. If you think of it, it wouldn’t hurt to place some work gloves in their emergency kit. Handling a tire is no easy feat, but gloves with grip tend to aide in the process.

F. Lower the Car

Gently lower the car to the ground using the jack and then tighten the lug nuts in a crisscross pattern. This is important to ensure equal pressure on all lug nuts.

G. Double Check

Make sure those lug nuts are snug but not over-tightened, and you’re good to go! Give your kiddo a high five for changing their first tire! Again, this is best done as a hands-on learning experience with you so that when the emergency inevitably happens, they are well prepared. There’s not always AAA available, or worse, maybe they don’t have reception in the middle of nowhere. Make sure they are prepared for it ALL.


Checking Oil and Fluid Levels

A healthy engine is a happy engine. Regularly checking your car’s oil and fluid levels ensures it runs smoothly. Here’s how to do it:

  • Engine Off: Park on level ground and wait for your engine to cool down. This shouldn’t take too long, but best practice is checking on this BEFORE you’ve been driving for miles.
  • Locate the Dipstick: Pull out the oil dipstick (it usually has a bright handle), wipe it clean with a paper towel (or random McDonald’s napkin you have sitting in your glove compartment), reinsert it, and pull it out again to check the oil level. It should be between the “low” and “full” marks. Make sure your kiddo knows exactly how to perform this simple task. It’ll help knowing when they need to replace/change their oil or simply add more until they can get to a mechanic. 
  • Fluid Reservoirs: Locate the reservoirs for other fluids like coolant, brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid. They often have labels or colored caps. Check the levels and top up if needed. Obviously, car maintenance shops can take care of all of these for you, but again this is in the case that those are not available or they simply do not have time to schedule something like that. Better safe than sorry knowing all their bases are covered. 


Understanding Dashboard Error Lights

Your car’s dashboard is like a symphony of lights and symbols, that can inevitably freak you out if you have no idea what they mean. Here are some common ones:

Check Engine Light: This usually means something’s up with your engine. It’s not usually an emergency, but it’s best to get it checked out soon. It could be something as simple as your gas cap is loose, or you have a messed up sensor.

It could also be as serious as an emissions issue. You can normally continue driving on it, but best practices (especially if you’re trying to teach your teen responsibility) is to get it looked at as soon as possible. 

It also matters if the light is blinking or if it’s a steady check engine light.

Blinking means something more serious is up, and it’s best to pull over immediately.

A steady light on means means that one of your engine sensors is doing one of two things – it’s either sending a signal to the vehicle’s ECU (computer) that something is wrong, or the vehicle’s ECU itself has lost an accurate read on that particular sensor – meaning, the sensor has gone out. If it’s a steady light, just opt to get it looked at as soon as you are able. Any car part store (like Autozone or O’Reilly’s) will be able to check your CEL light using an OBD II reader if you don’t have one on hand. An OBD II reader will be able to tell you what the problem is. 

You can also purchase an OBD II scanner to keep in the vehicle, but that’s not entirely necessary when you could just as easily pull into any AutoZone or O’Reilly’s to have them check it out for you. 

Oil Pressure Light: If this one pops up, stop driving immediately and turn off the engine. Low oil pressure can be a big problem. Your car’s engine requires lubricant to operate, and that’s what oil is for. Without sufficient lubrication, you can majorly damage your engine, which will in turn, damage your car. 

If adding oil doesn’t solve the problem, it’s best to get to a mechanic as soon as possible as it could be a myriad of problems. If an engine does not have oil pressure, it will run for only a few seconds before sustaining major damage. The oil in an engine lubricates the various moving parts and helps to keep the engine cool. without oil pressure, these parts will quickly begin to wear down and overheat, causing the engine to seize.


How to Jump a Car / Charge a Battery

One of the most common car trouble issues your teen will probably run into is a dealing with a dead battery. If they aren’t the friend that leaves their lights on at night and kills the battery, their friend certainly might – knowing these simple steps will be super duper helpful when the time comes, and you just don’t have the time to be rescued by AAA.

First, they’re going to need jumper cables, and a friend’s car with a working battery. Preferably the other friend that didn’t kill their battery overnight. Ha!


Park both vehicles in such a way that they are facing each other, with their batteries as close as possible. Ensure that both vehicles are in “Park” or “Neutral” for manuals, and that the ignition is turned off in both cars. Engage the parking brakes so you don’t go rolling away! Better safe than sorry.


Each battery has two terminals: a positive terminal (usually marked with a “+” sign or red) and a negative terminal (usually marked with a “-” sign or black).

Take one end of the red jumper cable and attach it to the positive terminal of the dead battery.
Attach the other end of the red jumper cable to the positive terminal of the working battery.
Take one end of the black jumper cable and attach it to the negative terminal of the working battery.

IMPORTANT: Instead of attaching the other end of the black cable to the negative terminal of the dead battery, find an unpainted metal surface in the engine compartment of the dead car to attach it to. This is called a “ground” and helps prevent sparks near the battery.


Start the vehicle with the working battery and let it run for a few minutes. This will help charge the dead battery.


Try to start the car with the dead battery. If it starts, great! Let it run for a few minutes to charge the battery further.


In the reverse order of how you connected them, remove the jumper cables. Start with the black cable from the engine ground of the formerly dead car, then the black cable from the working car, the red cable from the formerly dead car, and finally the red cable from the working car.


To ensure that the battery has had a chance to charge, keep the car with the formerly dead battery running for at least 15-20 minutes. This will give the alternator a chance to recharge the battery. You are good to drive at this point!

*** You can now turn off the formerly dead vehicle and then attempt to restart it if you have the time to test this out now and don’t need to be somewhere ASAP.

Remember that jumpstarting a car should be a temporary solution to get the vehicle running. If the battery repeatedly goes dead, there may be an underlying issue with the battery or the vehicle’s electrical system that should be addressed by a professional mechanic.

Here is a quick guide you can print out!


Having an Emergency Back Up Plan

Having a back-up plan like making sure your child is enrolled in AAA (24/7 roadside assistance) will also put you at ease. While basic car maintenance skills are important to have up their sleeves, it doesn’t hurt to have “insurance” knowing that should something go wrong, they can always call AAA for help with jumping a dead battery, changing a tire, or even just towing them to their destination or mechanic in an emergency.

Teaching them to be prepared is a life skill in and of itself. You’re doing great. *HIGH FIVE* for prepping them thus far!

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