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How to Talk to Your College Age Child/Student About...
Alcohol & Other Drugs

By Dessa Bergen-Cico Ph.D.
Director of Substance Abuse Prevention & Health Enhancement
Syracuse University

College is a turning point in the relationship between a parent or guardian and their son or daughter. It is a time when both parties are letting go of traditional and comfortable roles and looking forward to the future.

The sensitive discussion of drugs and alcohol use can be even more difficult when discussed in the context of sexual behavior and violence. But, consider what you have to lose if you do not have this conversation. You could lose your son or daughter.

Parents and guardians often find it difficult to talk about alcohol and other drug use because they may drink or use drugs themselves. Another concern that parents and guardians have is that discussion about such a subject as personal as substance use could bring up sensitive family issues. The truth is that virtually every family has been impacted, directly or indirectly, by substance abuse. There is often the personal concern that in order to discuss alcohol use with their son or daughter they must model and preach abstinence. This simply is not true. What we need to communicate is drinking responsibly and maintaining personal and community safety.

College: The Possibilities are Endless ...

College is an opportunity for intellectual and social growth. The personal experiences, extra-curricular activities and social development of college students is as significant as their academic growth.

College students are young adults living in an independent setting in which they are responsible for their own structure and lifestyle. Freshman year may be particularly challenging for your student as they experiment with "their newly acquired status of adulthood."

In high school, substance abuse prevention emphasized the important role parents and guardians play in helping their child deflect peer pressure. Now you have an even more important obligation to help your son or daughter deal with the environmental expectation that substance abuse is presumed to be a right of passage on college campuses.

The media coverage of recent alcohol-related deaths among college students has focused the spotlight on collegiate substance abuse. However, research indicates that college binge drinking has been a public health dilemma for decades, and has only recently been given the attention necessary to foster discussion and change. "We've all seen and heard horror stories about deaths and injuries caused by excessive drinking on campus," College Parents Association President Richard M. Flaherty said. "As parents, you are frightened by these stories. You have every right to be. Student alcohol abuse can be addressed, just as we have reduced drunk driving on our nation's roads. This fight will require college parents, students, universities and their communities working together." It is imperative that parents talk to their student about the personal and community impact of binge drinking.

"Every child in America is at risk of using drugs. The issue isn't whether our children are going to be tossed into this sea of drugs; the issue is how well we can teach them to swim. The more parents take responsibility, the less at risk of using drugs their children are." CASA President and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph A. Califano, Jr. said.

Source: 1996 survey of teenagers conducted for The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) by the Luntz Research Companies

Look Who's Coming to College

By the time American teenagers reach 17:

  • 58% have a friend who has used acid, cocaine or heroin; 62% have friends who are marijuana users.
  • 43% have one friend with a serious drug problem; 28% have more than one.
  • 34% know someone with a serious drinking problem.
  • 43% say marijuana is easier to buy than either cigarettes or beer.
  • 58% have been solicited to buy marijuana.

The Parents' Opinion:

  • Nearly half of baby boomer parents believe their teens will try illegal drugs.
  • 46% know someone who uses illegal drugs.
  • 32% have friends who use marijuana.

Source: 1996 survey of teenagers conducted for The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) by the Luntz Research Companies

Use vs. Abuse: Take a Closer Look:

Substance use turns to abuse when the use of alcohol or other drug use is detrimental to the health of the individual as well as the health of others. Since, the university is a community; the behavior of each student impacts the health, safety and behaviors of other students.

Spectrum of Substance Use, Abuse and Addiction

Abstinence - No use of alcohol and other drugs.

Experimentation - Alcohol and other drug use is influenced by curiosity and is experimental. It is limited to only a few exposures with no pattern of use and the student experiences limited negative consequences.

Social/Recreational - The student seeks out alcohol and/or other drugs to experience a certain effect but there is no established pattern of use.

Habituation - Regardless of how frequent the student uses alcohol or other drugs, a definite pattern of use indicates that the craving for the effect of the substance controls the user.

Drug Abuse - The student uses alcohol and/or other drugs despite negative consequences in relationships, school, finances, health, work, emotional well-being, or with the law.

Addiction - A student has lost control of their use of alcohol and/or other drugs. The substances have become the most important things in their lives.

Minimizing the Risks Associated with Alcohol and Other Drugs

Substance use presents some obvious immediate health risks such as alcohol poisoning and death from overdose. Substance use also presents immediate health risks which are not so obvious, such as:

  • A decrease in the ability to make safe and healthy decisions (ex. using a condom to protect yourself from the risk of infection with HIV).
  • The increase in violence associated with all drugs, including alcohol.
  • Date Rape: According to one study, 90% of all rapes reported to the campus Rape Center involved alcohol or other drug use by one or more persons involved.

A Conversation you Can't Afford Not to Have with Your College Age Child

Alcohol Use and Academic Performance

This table describes the relationship between the average number of drinks consumed per week by college students and grade point average.

Grades and Drinking
3.6 Drinks per week
5.5 Drinks per week
7.6 Drinks per week
10.6 Drinks per week
Source: 1996 National CORE Survey

Marijuana Use and Academic Performance

Consider the following facts:

  1. Marijuana impairs short-term memory and the ability to concentrate - abilities recognized by all educators to be important to school success.
  2. Marijuana use can have lingering effects on the ability to learn. Studies show that college students who used marijuana regularly had impaired skills related to attention, memory, and learning as many as 24 hours after they last used the drug.
  3. Marijuana slows reflexes and coordination. It impairs the user's ability to judge distance, speed, and time.
  4. Regular use of marijuana commonly causes respiratory problems such as bronchitis, sore throat, and coughs - all conditions that may significantly impact school attendance and concentration when in school.
  5. While not addictive in the same way that cocaine and other, harder drugs are, long-term use can lead to psychological dependence on the drug.

Source: 1997 The American Council for Drug Education

How and When to Talk to Your Son or Daughter

Before you begin ...

  • Avoid contradictions between your words and your actions.
  • Be prepared to establish an ongoing conversation rather than giving a one-time speech. The first discussion is likely to be the toughest to initiate.
  • Assess and review your own feelings about alcohol and other drug use.
  • Dialogue with other parents of college students who have learned by experience. They may have information to share on successful conversations they've had with their college student. They may also have advice on conversations or action they wish they had.

How to begin the conversations ...

  • Be prepared to initiate the discussion.
  • Exchange information face to face rather than over the phone.
  • Look for and create "teachable moments" such as television news, dramas, books, or newspapers that deal with substance use in college settings.
  • If the teachable moment seems to arise because your son or daughter is intoxicated, do not try to talk to them while they are intoxicated. Wait until the next day.

When you communicate ...

  • Communicate calmly and openly. You do not need to exaggerate. The facts speak for themselves.
  • Listen actively and try to understand each other's point of view.
  • Allow your son or daughter to express their fears and concerns without interruption or preaching.
  • Role play or use anecdotal scenarios. Work through potential situations your student may encounter in college using a role play. Figure out a number of ways a student handle each situation and talk about which works best, and why.

About the Author

Dessa Bergen-Cico Ph.D. is the Director of Substance Abuse Prevention & Health Enhancement at Syracuse University. The "Syracuse University Twelve Point Plan for Substance Abuse Prevention & Health Enhancement", received the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999 Exemplary Substance Abuse Prevention Program Award. Dessa is the author of several research articles including Patterns of Substance Abuse and Attrition Among First Year Students, published in the Journal of the First Year Experience.

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