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How to Talk to a College Student About Substance Use

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One of the most difficult discussions parents can have with their children is the talk about substance use. Drinking alcohol, smoking or ingesting marijuana, misusing prescription medication–all of these are tough to bring up and talk about with a college-aged child.

Children in college tend to test their freedom and experiment with different things. There is no one watching over them every day, like when they lived at home. They feel free and enjoy that freedom. They drink more alcohol, and some try drugs for the first time. Others still may increase alcohol and drug use at college. The straight-A student, the top-performing student-athlete, and students of all types can be subjected to peer pressure to binge drink and/or use drugs.

When your child is away from home, it can be a challenge to connect with them and get a clear picture of their well-being. As a parent, you are the first line of defense for your child when it comes to talking about substance use at college.

Ok, now what do I say?

We provide helpful advice and valuable information about talking to your college student about substance use. Start here.

Talking About Substance Use Advice

In her Psychology Today blog post, Dr. Marcia Morris gives four pointers in beginning the talk about substance use with your child.

Use positive parenting. Parents who have an open and warm relationship with their children will often have more effective communication with their children. Keep the lines of open communication open. Keep reminding children of your expectations when needed. Remember to keep your feelings.

Start talking about substance use early. Start talking about it when your child is in junior high school. Let them know you disapprove of excessive drinking and of using substances, such as marijuana, prescription medication that is not theirs, and other drugs. Be available when they need to talk. Always ask where they are planning to go, who they will be with, and what they are doing. But do so with warmth, care, and openness.

Approach substance use as a health issue. Addiction is a chronic disease, and it can be inherited. Let children know that alcohol can affect them physically and mentally and be harmful to their developing body and brain.

Set limits for alcohol use. Remind college-age children what your limits of alcohol use are. Remind them of what your stance is on marijuana use. If you use marijuana, it’s best to discourage children from using it daily.

Communication and Safety Tips

Good communication means listening and hearing what your child has to say. Keep your reactions in check, and don’t overreact or be judgmental.  The Collegiate Parent reminds parents:

Don’t praise or laugh off substance use. When you make a joke about a child’s hangover, you are subtly encouraging them to use alcohol or consume more of it. If your child makes a comment about how they are feeling, ask them where they were, and what they consumed. Did they smoke or ingest too much marijuana? Did they take an unprescribed stimulant to stay up late and study?

Set safety measures. Put safety measures in place before they leave for college. Strongly encourage them to use a rideshare app if they are too drunk or high to drive. Talk about the situations children can get into when their mind is compromised with alcohol or drugs. Ask them how they can get out of a situation that places them in harm. Brainstorming ideas like these can also help boost your child’s self-esteem, which can be very beneficial when they need an escape.

Remind them of your standards. Remind your children of what your standards are for using alcohol or drugs. Remind them what the consequences are if they break those standards. Will they have to come home? Will they lose their academic standing or sports placement? These are a few real consequences of using substances at college.Keep talking about it. Check in with your college student and ask questions about their college life. Listen to what they say. They may tell you there are numerous parties on and off campus every night. They may say someone in their dorm, sharing the frat or sorority house, in their class, on their sports team is using substances and offered to share. Talk with your child about how they handled the situation and/or what they can do the next time.

Facts for Parents on Substance Use in College

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states

  • 1,519 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes
  • An estimated 696,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking each year.
  • An estimated 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 report experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape each year.
Many people

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) published results from a national survey on substance use among college athletes.

  • 77% of college athletes consumed alcohol  
  • 42% indulged in binge drinking
  • More than 38% used marijuana (inhaled and ingested). Seventy-seven percent of those did so for social reasons. Nineteen percent used it for pain management.
  • 2% used amphetamines
  • 5% used cocaine
  • 3% used Ecstasy/Molly
  • Prescription narcotic pain medication use was higher (10.5%) than use without a prescription (2.0%)
  • ADHD medication use without a prescription was higher (7.5%) than use with a prescription (6.6%)
Many people

The 2018 Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults Survey, a national survey produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, found these results for people between ages 18 and 25:

  • Any alcohol use – 54.3 percent
  • Binge alcohol use – 34.3 percent
  • Illicit drug use – increased from 37.5 percent in 2015 to 39.1 percent in 2019
  • Illicit drug use disorder- 7.5 percent (or 2.5 million people) had an illicit drug use disorder in the past year.
Many people

What Can Parents Do to Help a Child Misusing Substances?

We realize these statistics can cause undue worry for parents of college-aged students. However, there are sure actions parents can take to help their child misusing substances.

Parents can seek advice and help from the college. Many schools have student health centers and counseling centers where students can go to get help for many maladies, from exam stress to alcohol or drug use.

Learn what the signs of substance use are and find addiction treatment help for a child. Some signs of substance use addiction are a drop in grades, mood swings, an increase in spending/asking for more money, school discipline, including notes or letters from the school about your child’s behavior problems, sleep changes, weight loss or gain, change in friends, and social isolation.

Talking to your college student about substance use may not be easy. The time to sit down and discuss the consequences of substance use is before the child leaves for college. 

If this time has passed, set a day and time to meet and talk about it. Virtual meeting places, such as Zoom or Skype, can be useful if your child is far from home. Let them know that no matter where they are in the world, you are only a phone call, text message, or video call away. One click and you are there. 

Knowing that their parents are available and open to talk about troubling topics can help college-age children open up and be there for them.

Sources

Psychology Today. (2016, February 20) Should Parents Just Say No When It Comes to Drugs & College? Morris, M. MD from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/college-wellness/201602/should-parents-just-say-no-when-it-comes-drugs-college

Collegiate Parent. Have “The Talk” about Drugs and Alcohol with Your Student. See, J. from https://www.collegiateparent.com/wellness/have-the-talk-about-drugs-and-alcohol-with-your-student/

NIDA. (2019, September 13) Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/infographics/drug-alcohol-use-in-college-age-adults-in-2018

SAMHSA. (2019, September) The 2018 Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults Survey Results. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2019-nsduh-annual-national-report

NIAAA. College Drinking-Related Statistics. Consequences of Alcohol Use. from https://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/statistics/consequences.aspx

National Collegiate Athletic Association. (2018 June) NCAA National Study on Substance Use Habits of College Student-Athletes. from http://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2018RES_Substance_Use_Final_Report_FINAL_20180611.pdf

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