As we near the end of the end of spring term, I invite you to reflect on how the how the school year has been for you and your student. What have they shared with you about their college experience? What seems to have gone well, and what, if anything, hasn’t?
Perhaps there are topics about which you are curious that they have not discussed with you. Sometimes, parents have concerns about their student’s alcohol use but are unsure how to approach the subject without causing conflict or being dismissed. If you are far from campus and unsure about the norms of current university life, you may feel somewhat removed from today’s realities about college drinking. So let us focus together on the impact of campus drinking and what you might do about it.
Certainly, the UO strives to create conditions that enhance learning and decrease problems with student drinking. Yet these efforts are best supported by parent involvement with their student and with the university.
Let’s first tackle the common assumption that “college students drink a lot; what’s the big deal?” In fact, the belief that other college students drink more than oneself often results in heavier, and often dangerous, drinking “to catch up” with their peers. Despite the fact that the legal drinking age in the U.S. is 21, the amount of consumption per drinking episode amongst underage college students tends to be significantly higher than their peers who are of legal drinking age (Harvard School of Public Health College, 1999).
As a parent, you may wonder, in light of college norms, what is the line between “normal” social drinking vs. alcohol consumption that has become problematic. While this line is drawn differently based on culture and country, indicators of excessive drinking may include an impact on physical health (e.g. brief and long-term memory “blackouts” or poor recall of prior events), academics (e.g. missed classes, inability to concentrate due to repeated hangovers, lower grades), and social and legal consequences (e.g. increased emotionality leading to physical fights, unprotected sex, sexual assault). A family history of alcohol abuse is important to note as the student is at a significantly higher risk for developing alcoholism. But the largest predictor for persistent, excessive alcohol use into adulthood involves the habit of turning to alcohol to cope with life’s problems (Ohio State University, 2009).
While students are exploring their independence, as a parent you can help promote your student’s safety and good decision making, even while at a distance. Inform yourself about campus drinking and the relevant resources on campus. Be aware of potential signs of problem drinking (e.g., declining grades, significant mood changes, sudden distance or unwillingness to talk with you about social activities, trouble with campus authorities). When you observe such signs, initiate a conversation with your student and draw upon campus resources to help. Most importantly, you can cultivate open lines of communication by being non-blaming while voicing your concerns and support.
Here are some other thoughts that may be helpful to consider:
Encourage an open dialogue about drinking alcohol or drug use. Be available to talk and invite the conversation. Take time to listen and provide plenty of space in the conversation for your student to voice his or her perspective. This is certainly difficult to do without quickly moving to your thoughts or reactions, so slow down the pace of the conversation. Agree to take time to think and come back to the topic if the conversation gets heated.
Be thoughtful of how you talk about your own experience with alcohol or drugs. Avoid tales of drinking exploits from your own college years when it emphasizes excessive drinking. A more balanced approach would be to share what you learned and what you did to be safe.
Explore with your student his or her perspective about what is desirable about alcohol as well as what she or he wishes to avoid. Brainstorm how alcohol-related risks (e.g. impaired judgment, emotionality, social embarrassment) can be minimized. It may be that your son or daughter has good ideas about how to reduce their risks, but hasn’t thought through how to put these ideas into action.
You can further help your student by being informed about and remaining connected with UO campus resources:
- If you think your student may have an issue with alcohol or other drugs, contact the Office of Student Life at (541) 346-3216 for more information on campus and community resources.
- If your student is being affected by other students violating university policies, please encourage them to speak to a residence life staff member or the Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards at (541) 346-1140.
- Remind your student that the University provides low-cost healthcare services and confidential counseling at no additional cost to enrolled students. University Counseling and Testing Center (541) 346-3227.
- The UO sponsors an assault prevention and designated driver shuttle to help keep your student safe. Share this information your student: 346-RIDE.
It’s important to acknowledge that even while you may do your best to be a positive influence with your student, alcohol addiction can be a powerful force, and students may deny that they have a problem and even push you away. In this case, it’s best to work on keeping the lines of communication open so that when your student is ready to make a change, they will turn to you for support.
Lissa Joy Geiken, M.Ed., (former Intern at the Counseling and Testing Center)