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How to Prepare Your Teen to Stay Sober in College

Whether or not your child has struggled with substance abuse or addiction in the past, sending her off to college is a prospect you, like many parents, may find more than a little terrifying. According to a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, more than two-thirds of the eight million college students in 2003 reported past-month drinking, and an estimated 31 percent met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse. Clearly kids don’t want to stay sober in college. Preparing your child now for that inevitable day when she’ll be on her own will not only help you sleep better at night, but it will provide her with a solid foundation from which she will likely make healthier choices about alcohol use. Why College Students Drink So why do two out of three college students abuse alcohol? The Addictive Behaviors study reveals that many first-year students use alcohol to cope with the wide range of emotions and stressors associated with that first transitional year. Freshmen also report that they drink for social lubrication and a sense of belonging. Drinking games are another motive for using alcohol, and this dangerous activity leads to a number of high-risk behaviors and potentially dangerous situations. The study identified six moderators that are associated with first-year drinking, including a sensation-seeking personality, prior alcohol abuse and a lack of parental influence.

Proof that Parents Can Make a Difference

Parents have a great deal of influence over a child’s alcohol use, and clinical studies show that parent involvement in addressing alcohol use prior to sending a child to college may reduce alcohol abuse in first-year students. With funding from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Maryland Collaborative developed a comprehensive guide to best practices for reducing alcohol use among college students. The guide cites strong research showing that parents who do the following can stave off the onset of alcohol problems or prevent them from escalating:

  • Proactively engage in their child’s college career
  • Set zero-tolerance expectations for underage drinking
  • Stay vigilant for signs of problem alcohol use

What You Can Do

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), research suggests that teens who discussed alcohol avoidance strategies with their parents prior to starting college were less likely to use alcohol or more likely to limit its use, even among teens who are already heavy drinkers. SAMHSA provides free resources for parents to help guide the conversation about drinking in college, including their free downloadable guide, Talking With Your College-Bound Young Adult About Alcohol, which offers a number of tips to help guide the conversation:

  • Take advantage of conversations that naturally lend themselves to a discussion about alcohol.
  • Talk about the effects of alcohol on academic success, and discuss the potential consequences of drinking, such as engaging in high-risk behaviors, being evicted from a residence hall or kicked off a sports team, or losing a scholarship.
  • Emphasize how underage drinking affects health, safety and academic achievement.
  • Make your position on underage drinking clear. Adopt a zero-tolerance stance, which, according to SAMHSA, is the most effective way to prevent alcohol use at college, even if your student has already used alcohol.
  • Talk to your child about alternatives to drinking, such as participating in clubs on campus or choosing a trip to the movies or a campus-sanctioned event over a house party.
  • Be honest about your own past drinking behavior if it comes up. Talk about the risks you took and any consequences you experienced.
  • Avoid lecturing or giving ultimatums, instead focusing on fostering an ongoing two-way discussion that shows you care about, trust and respect your child.

Starting Early: Two Helpful Resources

The earlier you start the conversation, the better the chances your message will get through loud and clear and affect your child’s decisions about alcohol use. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s guide, Make a Difference: Talk to Your Child About Alcohol offers a great deal of information and a number of helpful tips for talking to your teenager about alcohol abuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website has a page of parent resources that can help you start the conversation and keep it going.These include guides like Why Small Conversations Make a Big Impression, 5 Conversation Goals and What You Can Do to Prevent Your Child from Drinking. To learn more about preparing your teen to stay sober in college, give us a call at¬†877-466-0620.