College Students and Drinking
Your son or daughter will be leaving for college before you know it, and hopefully you’ve had conversations about underage drinking long before now.The importance of such talks can’t be stressed enough. In fact, age-appropriate talks about alcohol — for example, what it does in your body, how most people drink responsibly but some get into trouble — should start when a child is young and be repeated from time to time. Hopefully, the subject is part of all school health classes today as well.
Even if you haven’t discussed underage drinking much at home, kids are hearing about it — whether about drinking at proms and graduation, young drivers having accidents after drinking, or teens ending up in emergency rooms for alcohol poisoning. Each year, at least one college hazing ritual involving alcohol that results in a fatality seems to hit the media, too.
Studies have found that kids are drinking less today, but underage drinking is still a problem. Experts say that students may experiment with drinking around age 14 or 15, and an article in USA Today reports that one in 10 high school seniors have engaged in binge drinking, defined as 5 or more drinks for males in one sitting, and 4 or more for females.
Researchers say that the earlier a person starts abusing alcohol (and other substances), the more prone they are to developing an addiction. You’ve also likely heard that teen brains are still developing, and that early alcohol and drug use can result in cognitive or learning difficulties. It can also result in impaired judgment, which in turn can result in risky behavior or poor decisions, and may involve sexual activity or violence.
If you need more proof that there’s a problem, here’s what the Centers for Disease Control has to say: Fact Sheets on Underage Drinking.
“I HAVE talked with my child about drinking,” you may say. But because of the dangers, it may be helpful to have a formal, sit-down conversation with your child before he or she leaves for college and set boundaries, even with a “contract” like you might have had when they started driving.
Let them know the consequences they face if they do drink at college, both from the college (this info should be on the college website) and from you. That means you have to decide what you’ll do if they are caught drinking. You want them to take this next step to adulthood, but as parents, you still exert a lot of influence, even if teens are no longer under your roof. Note: Here’s another article on HuffPost on “The Colleges That Discipline Students the Most for Liquor Law Violations.”
As a college freshman, your son or daughter will be facing new peer pressure and will be trying to fit in with a new group of people. He or she may be homesick for a bit, and anxious. Stress is normal while a student adjusts, but if your child mentions physical problems or sounds excessively worried, or if some of their fears are irrational, you may need to step in. That may mean a visit, or a talk with, a professional.
Here are some tips on how to talk to your teen while they’re still in junior high or high school, and what to say:
- Ask them if they’re continuing to learn about alcohol in school, perhaps in health class, and what they’ve learned.
- Don’t assume that just because your child is a top student or athlete, he or she will not start drinking. You’re in denial if you believe that.
- Ask them about what’s going on with their classmates. Do they know of kids who seem to have a problem? Have they seen drinking at parties? What would they do if offered a drink? It’s a way to start the conversation (or ideally, continue the conversation).
- Ask about their own drinking. Have they been offered a drink? Don’t avoid the conversation; that’s being in denial, too. (By age 18, more than 70% of teens have had at least one drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.) Make sure they know that you don’t want them to lie, but that you don’t agree with underage drinking, and review the reasons.
- Keep liquor in your home locked up. Don’t make it easy for young people to have access to liquor.
- Model appropriate behavior yourself. There’s having a glass of wine with dinner, and then there’s overdoing it. If you’re having a few beers or a couple of glasses of wine to “take the edge off” after work, you’re showing them that it’s OK to make alcohol a stress reliever.
And after your student starts college:
- Attend Parent’s Weekend and drop in unexpectedly if you’re not sure what’s going on.
- When your child returns home, let him or her know that even though they’re in college now, you still don’t approve of underage drinking. You aren’t doing your child any favors (and don’t think you’re teaching them to drink responsibly) if you allow underage drinking at home.
- Remind your student that underage drinking is illegal.
Debbie Schwartz, a former financial services executive and mother of a tween, teen, and young adult. She’s the founder of Road2College, a newsletter and website focused on educating families about college life, admissions, and financing. When parents and students become informed consumers of higher education, the road to college doesn’t have to be lined with debt.
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