Posts for Parents

How Do I Talk to My Student About Staying Healthy in College?

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By Diane Schwemm, UniversityParent Contributor

Health is at the foundation of our lives. It’s how much or little we sleep, what (and why) we eat and drink, how we balance work and play, how we handle stress, how we deal with relationships. Now that our kids have headed off to college, they are pretty much wholly responsible for taking care of their own health. That’s a scary thought for us parents, who are acutely aware that our students have moved into an environment percolating with increased opportunities for behaviors that could negatively impact their health. The good news: even as college-aged children transition to adult independence, parents can and should continue to support and influence them.

That said, discussing health issues with our kids can be tricky. The subject matter is personal. We may remember making some poor choices during our own college years. That’s all the more reason to talk to them about staying healthy, and with some advance planning this can become a natural part of your regular conversations.

Step 1: Familiarize Yourself With Campus Resources

Like a lot of things you’ll want to discuss with your child about college life, when it comes to health, the more information you have ahead of time, the more you’ll get out of the conversation. Start at the school’s website; most likely you’ll be comforted by the extensive health and wellness services available to your student. Whether at a small liberal arts college or large state university, a typical menu includes primary care (including flu shots and vaccinations), sports medicine, women’s health care, mental health services, nutrition counseling, and more. Colleges work hard to make sure students know what’s available and are educated, starting during Orientation (my son, a freshman at a small school in New England, reported numerous presentations and skits about drinking, safe sex, etc…and I knew to ask him about this because I’d studied the Orientation Schedule). After a little research, you’ll have facts at your fingertips if/when health-related questions come up.

Step 2: Know the Facts About Drinking at Your Child’s School

Possibly no topic related to student health provokes more anxiety for parents than that of campus drinking. And rightly so: alcohol abuse can factor into a host of other potential problems, health-related and otherwise, including accidents, sexual assault, depression, and poor grades. But misperceptions about college drinking are rampant as well. Getting as much accurate information as you can will help you talk about this with your student. A great place to start is the website (an initiative of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). Here you can access a state-by-state map of college alcohol policies and download the brochure “What Parents Need to Know About College Drinking.” You can be reassured by the fact that most students drink in moderation or not at all; at the same time, when it comes to drinking, “The College Effect” is real. Find out how schools across the country, especially those saddled with a party school rep, are combating binge drinking in innovative ways – a good conversation starter with your child.

Step 3: Communicate Regularly

Texts and e-mails can help you stay close to your college student, but real communication requires the old-fashioned phone. How often you call or Skype is up to them, but it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest a weekly phone date. Then, temper your expectations. Every phone call won’t be stellar, or now and then you’ll strike it rich (just like when they lived at home!).

As for when to start discussing how to stay healthy, it was before your child moved into the dorm, of course! But if you didn’t, it’s far from too late. Particularly for freshmen, the early weeks of the year are critical as kids make friends, experiment (in some cases) with partying, and establish study routines and connections to teams and clubs. Find out how the rooming situation is going, and who your child is hanging out with. Remind her how much better she feels when she’s on a sports team; encourage him to audition for the play or a capella group. What is there to do for fun on – or off – campus? Is your child getting to know his/her Resident Counselor? Be aware of the rhythm of the school year as it might relate to your child’s health: orientation, midterms and finals, Homecoming and other special events, room draw, fraternity and sorority rush, etc.

When you make that much-anticipated Skype connection, let your child talk more than you do. Practice the art of listening. Ask open ended questions (informed by all your research!) and be prepared to reserve judgment (i.e., bite your tongue). Try giving advice only when asked (for me, this is a hard one). Our expectations for them should remain high, but our kids won’t want to talk to us about anything if they think we’ll lecture or condemn. Even if it makes you uncomfortable (possibly you didn’t talk to your own parents about this stuff), don’t shy away from discussing relationships, sex, and drinking. This might be new territory, and she needs to know these topics aren’t taboo. Early and often, express your confidence in your child’s ability to make good choices even as you reassure him that mistakes are part of life. We all make and (hopefully) learn from them.

On that note, it’s important to remember that, with health as in all things, the way we live our own lives speaks louder than words to our children. We, too, should take time for rest and renewal. So, at some point today, slow down. Pour a cup of tea, play with the family dog, make time for a friend. Or put together a care package to send to your child at college.

Did you enjoy reading this article? Sign up for UniversityParent’s weekly eNewsletter for additional tips and advice to help your college student succeed. You can also add to the discussion and get feedback from fellow college parents by joining our College Parents’ Facebook group.