It’s October, and college kids are deep into their first semester. They are settled into their residence halls, have figured out their meal plans and are finishing up their first round of mid-terms. Many students have participated in fall rush (Greek life) festivities and are now a pledge of a fraternity or sorority chapter.
Students may also be experimenting with drugs and alcohol — perhaps for the first time — or, unbeknownst to parents, may be on the path to some serious trouble with their substance use.
According to a 2016 Study by the American Health College Association, 62.6% percent of all college undergraduates reported alcohol use within the last 30 days of being surveyed and 19.8% reported using marijuana. In addition, 16.6% of college students reported driving after having alcohol in the last 30 days of being surveyed.
Nothing will shut down a conversation faster than judging or immediately disapproving of their choices. While it’s easier said than done, if your child opens up to you, just listen.
Of course, from a distance, parents can’t control what their kids are doing in their spare time. What parents can do, though, is bring up this often ignored or avoided topic. Based on my personal experience as a chemical dependency counselor and as a college parent, here are tips for keeping the conversation going about drugs and alcohol, even from afar.
Ask direct questions.
Many times parents circle around the issue by asking indirect questions such as “Did you have too much fun last night?” Ask them point-blank: Are you drinking at parties? What are you drinking? How much are you using and how are you getting it? Are you smoking pot or trying other things, such as Molly or LSD?
Keep your reactions in check.
Nothing will shut down a conversation faster than judging or immediately disapproving of their choices. While it’s easier said than done, if your child opens up to you, just listen. Don’t yell or disapprove, even if you’re upset by what they are telling you. Your reaction will set the tone, and establish a precedent, for any future conversations.
Don’t praise or laugh off substance use.
If your student tells you they have a hangover, saying things like, “It won’t be your last one, for sure,” or telling them they need a better tolerance can send the message that you are encouraging, and approving, their use. Many kids I’ve treated in my clinic have told me that their parents reacted this way when their drug or alcohol use was discovered. Oftentimes, these kids were subtly (or not so subtly!) letting their parents know that their drinking or smoking was getting out of hand.
Put safety measures in place.
Let your children know that you are there for them, even from miles away. Do they need access to Uber or Lyft to get themselves out of a dicey situation? Help them open an account if they don’t have one. Talk to them about various scenarios and ask how they might handle themselves in those situations. Chances are, they haven’t thought it through. Acknowledging the kinds of things that can happen, and brainstorming possible responses, can help them steer clear of trouble.
Remind them of your standards.
Your expectations and standards of behavior and conduct don’t end just because your kids are out of your sight. Substance use and abuse can affect a student’s health and school performance, and, as we have seen too often in the news lately, have deadly outcomes. Ensure your kids know that consequences can and will happen if they do not keep their end of the bargain as far as your expectations about alcohol and drug use.
Keep the dialogue open.
Let your kids know you are a safe place to land. Maybe they need to vent about their roommate’s use of x, y or z. Or maybe your child did something they are not proud of with regards to using drugs or alcohol and need to talk about it.
What can you do if, after these discussions, you deem there is a problem? Know your campus counseling resources. Find a local counselor that specializes in substance use and abuse. Get your student some help. Above all, keep the conversation going. It’s too important to ignore.