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How to Talk to Your Student About Responsible Drinking


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By Kelli Ruhl and Diane Schwemm

We’ll begin by stating that the amount of alcohol that can be safely consumed by a teen or someone in their early 20s (prior to the point at which the adolescent brain has matured into an adult brain) is none.

Next we’ll recognize that, while many of our households had strict rules about underage drinking during the high school years, now that our students are living independently at college, an “abstinence only” policy may not be practical.

At the time it was conducted, a recent national survey found that more than half of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month and about a third engaged in binge drinking during the same time period. At any given point in time, many more students are experimenting with alcohol.

This does not mean parents should feel helpless. There is strong evidence that the messages we send and information we share with our students is received by them and does in fact influence their choices and behavior.

Let’s back up a minute and look at some facts. An article by Jessica Lahey in the Washington Post distills the scientific data in compelling fashion and the conclusion is unequivocal. “Alcohol is the addictive substance most widely used by adolescents, and its use is associated with the leading causes of death for teens, including suicide, car accidents and homicides,” writes Lahey.

What the Research Tells Us

  • Rates of teen drinking are down BUT the teens who do drink are more likely than adults to binge drink.
  • Binge drinking is associated with (among other bad things) higher rates of driving while under the influence, risky sexual behaviors, and getting less sleep and lower grades.
  • Alcohol use can permanently affect important parts of the brain (well, they’re all important!), but specifically the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex (locations of judgment and higher level thinking) which aren’t fully mature until the mid-20s, and also the hippocampus, where memories are formed (important to our ability to learn and perform).
  • Finally, the younger a person is when they begin drinking, the higher the chance that they will develop a problem with alcohol during their lifetime.

Now we return to another fact: As a parent, you are still your emerging adult’s first and best teacher. By being proactive and talking regularly with them about the campus party scene, their experiences with alcohol, and what it means to drink responsibly, you can continue to have a positive influence.

Education ≠ Encouragement

Educating your student about responsible drinking isn’t the same thing as encouraging or endorsing underage drinking.

Instead, when you teach your student about how alcohol works in the body, the importance of protecting their cup and sticking with friends at parties, and how to recognize when it’s time to exit a situation or call for help, you’re emphasizing health, safety and self-advocacy.

These conversations require that you know your facts, be honest and open-minded, and most of all, be prepared to listen. Do know that when you talk to them (as long as you’re careful not to lecture), they will listen.

Understanding a few key things will help your student remain in control in social situations. If they choose to drink (or even if they just like to go to campus parties where other people are drinking), they should follow these rules.

1. Know your limits.

Explain to your student that alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, affects the body by slowing down brain function as well as other major functions such as breathing and heart rate. If someone drinks too much, their breathing or heart rate can reach dangerously low levels — or even stop.

Anyone who chooses to drink should keep careful track of their consumption and recognize when they’ve had enough. One drink may make a person feel loose but this does not mean four drinks multiplies that good feeling by four; quite the opposite.

Discuss blood alcohol content (BAC) and how they might feel as their BAC rises with each drink. Make sure they understand that every individual has their own limit, depending on their biological gender (men and women metabolize alcohol differently for a variety of physiological reasons), weight and other factors, and that someone else’s limit won’t be the same as their own.

Good resources to share:
2. Protect your cup.

Researchers from the University of South Carolina surveyed more than 6,000 students about their experiences with drugs and alcohol at campus parties. 462 students reported being drugged in the academic year preceding the study (a total of 539 instances) while 83 students admitted having drugged another person’s drink without their knowledge.

The takeaway: Students MUST guard their drinks.

Women are more likely to be victims than men, but neither are immune. Warn your student to never accept a drink from a stranger and if possible to watch their drink being made if it is made by someone else. Their safest bet is to keep their cup in their hand at all times. If they walk away from a drink, they should consider it done.

3. Trust your gut.

Your student should always listen to their intuition. If a situation makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe, they should remove themselves. They don’t have to stay anywhere, with anyone, if their gut tells them something is wrong.

4. Catch a sober ride.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, alcohol-impaired driving is responsible for almost a third of overall driving fatalities. This is one place where there’s no gray area. Your student should never drive after drinking or get in a car with someone who’s been drinking.

Most college campuses have free “safe ride” services, and Uber and Lyft are readily available to serve as designated drivers. Your student should put the safe ride number in their phone and load money or a credit card onto their Uber or Lyft account so they always have a safe option.

Click here for campus safety tips, including how to stay safe when hailing a ride.
5. Stick with your friends.

The “buddy system” never goes out of style. There is truly safety in numbers, especially when it comes to partying in an environment where meeting new people is the norm.

Going out in a group is the safest choice because your student will always have someone looking out for them. They should stay with the group they came with and never leave a party with a stranger or by themselves — and they should keep an eye on their friends as well.

6. Know when to call for help.

If they find themselves in a sketchy situation, or feel even the slightest bit unsafe, your student needs to know who to call. They can call you if you live nearby, or if the situation is critical dial 911.

Alcohol poisoning can lead to irreversible brain damage and even death. If they see any of these signs in a friend, they should call 911 IMMEDIATELY:

  • Mental confusion, stupor, or the person cannot be roused
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), pale or bluish skin color

Print a copy of this two-sided Alcohol Awareness Wallet Card for them to keep in their wallet.

Tips for Starting a Conversation With Your Student

Be honest.

If you want your student to be honest with you, you need to be honest with them. If you experimented with drinking in college, don’t pretend you didn’t.

Instead, use your experiences as an opening for a frank conversation about the realities of college partying. You don’t have to over share — use your judgment about which stories are appropriate. And your tone matters (you’re not boasting about or glorifying your escapades).

Stay open-minded.

The best thing you can do is listen to your student. Reserve judgment and try to understand their point of view, even if it differs from your own. Skip the lecture — let them explore their own opinions and logic, and ask them questions to prod them along. Have facts on hand, though, so if they’re not clear about something (what happens to students at their college who are ticketed for underage drinking?) you can supply some helpful information.

Be there.

Your student needs to know that you’re there for them no matter what happens. Let them know that if they ever want to talk, you’re available, and if they’re ever in trouble — in any place, at any time — they can call you for help.

At the end of the day, you can’t control what your student does when they are out of your home. You can arm them with the knowledge and resources they need to stay safe and healthy.


Alcohol Facts and Statistics. (2018). Retrieved from

Hilliard, Jena. (2019, May 20). Is Alcohol a Depressant? [blog post]. Retrieved from

Quigley, Joanna (2019). Alcohol Use by Youth. Pediatrics, Volume 144 (1). Retrieved from

Swan, Suzanne C. et al. (2016). Just a Dare or Unaware? Outcomes and Motives of Drugging (“Drink Spiking”) Among Students at Three College Campuses. Psychology of Violence 2017, Vol. 7, 253-264. Retrieved from

Turrisi, Rob. (2010). A Parent Handbook for Talking with Students About Alcohol. Prevention Research Center, The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved from

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