Alcohol use is one of parents’ greatest concerns when sending their children to college — and they are right to be concerned. Nationally, an estimated 25% of college students engage in binge drinking, according to the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. Alcohol and drug use on college campuses contributes to reduced study and missed classes, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, and greater risk for sexual assault and other violence.
How You Can Help
What are you, as a parent, to do? While you cannot control the choices and behaviors of your college student, you do have significant influence. The question becomes how to exert your influence while promoting personal responsibility and independence? Here are a few tips.
Show your interest in their social wellbeing, not just the behaviors that concern you.
Students whose parents do not ask questions about their lives at school conclude that their parents are not interested in them, do not care, or do not really know them. Ask open-ended questions. How are they finding their life at UO? Are they making friends with whom they feel they can be themselves? Are they enjoying their classes and their major (not just, getting good grades)? The primary reason students give for alcohol and drug use is that it helps them fit in socially. If your student has had difficulty making friends in the past, then this may be a difficulty at college. Even well-adjusted high school students sometimes have difficulty making the transition to a new community where they are no longer the “senior” members. So ask open-ended questions, and really listen to their answers.
It is important for parents to examine their own attitudes and behaviors around drinking and drug use. Challenge any myths you may believe (e.g., Boys will be boys, All college students drink.) The perpetuation of these myths leaves students feeling alienated from their true feelings and needs and abandoned by society. Update your knowledge about college drinking by checking out these links: (www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov, http://www.the-scientist.com/2006/2/1/54/1/). If you suspect your student has a drinking or drug problem, consult with a professional about a plan of action for getting help.
Create a peace-zone.
When talking to your student about substance use, it is easy to trigger defenses. Start by giving them specific, honest, feedback about what you value and admire about them. Give an example to back it up. This fosters a positive context and connection, and students crave this (even while pretending not to). They need to hear positive reflections of themselves from mature adults at this age, as they are entering the adult world and are desperate to know that they can make it. So, even if you are very worried about your student’s behavior, find that one thing you respect about him and tell him about it.
Foster cooperative communication rather than trying to exert control.
Clearly admit the limits of your control. For instance, I know that you are making your own decisions now, and that I cannot make them for you. While that scares me, I know it’s true. Fear can sabotage open lines of communication, so recognizing the limits of your control will make you more effective in engaging your student in a conversation and eliciting their cooperation. While you cannot control another person’s drinking, you can exert your influence by cooperatively negotiating realistic expectations for academic performance. How could you be the parent your student calls with a problem rather than fears about being confronted or nagged?
Clearly and simply state the behavioral changes you have witnessed (staying out late, risky behaviors, withdrawal from family). I used to really enjoy your sense of humor. I really miss that. Remember when…..? Now you seem to avoid us. Students with substance abuse problems often feel invisible to their parents. Being specific tells your student you are paying attention and care about him/her. We often hear from students that they want better communication with their parents. So take courage and start a dialogue.
If you need additional help knowing what to do about your student’s drinking or drug problem, feel free to contact the University Counseling & Testing Center (541-346-3227).
Elizabeth Loux, PsyD,Sr. Staff Therapist