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Health & Safety

Have “The Talk” about Drugs and Alcohol with Your Student

Jennifer See

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It's halfway through the school year and your college student has established a social routine. They are settled into their residence halls and have made friends in extracurricular clubs; they may also have participated in fall rush (Greek life) festivities and so are now part of a fraternity or sorority chapter.

At this point in young adulthood, many students are also experimenting (as part of their social life, or on their own) with drugs and alcohol — perhaps for the first time. Unbeknownst to parents, some may be on the path to serious trouble with their substance use.

In a recent study by the American College Health 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.

Of course, from a distance, parents can’t control what their students 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 student 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 students I’ve treated in my clinic have told me that their parents reacted this way when their drug or alcohol use was discovered. Often these teens and young adults 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 student know you're 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 student is out of your sight. Substance use and abuse can affect their health and school performance and, as we have seen too often in the news, have deadly outcomes. Ensure your student knows 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 student 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 student did something they're 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.

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Jennifer See, LPC, LCDC is a clinician in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. She sees individuals ages 10 and up and focuses on mental health and substance use and abuse issues. Jennifer is also the parent of two college students. Visit her website at and connect on social @jenniferseelpc.
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