How to talk about drinking and drugs

student drinking

By Diane Schwemm

Sending our students off to college is rewarding but also nerve-wracking. The college years mean new opportunities and experiences for them…and new worries for us.

From the moment they arrive at college, our students are confronted with a host of choices — from whom to be friends with and how to spend their free time (even how to define “free time”) to which classes to take and what field to major in.

Some of these choices will have long-lasting implications, and while we celebrate and honor our students’ independence, we’re aware that they are still young, without a lot of “real life” experience.

Becoming an adult is a process.

The good news is that, even from afar, we can offer parental advice, be role models, and remain a touchpoint for our family values.

The majority of students do not “binge drink,” and about 20% of students don’t drink at all.

Yep, this is the big one. No matter where your student goes to school, or what kind of social life he had in high school, college presents new distractions and temptations. If you’ve discussed these issues with your student during high school, keep the conversation going. If you avoided it then, or felt it wasn’t an issue for your student, don’t feel as if that means you can’t bring it up now.

Keeping the lines of honest communication open

You and your student can talk about alcohol and drugs not in isolation but as part of a larger (and ongoing) discussion about other aspects of campus life — friends, activities, academics, and everyday stresses. 

Here’s how to get the ball rolling with some conversation starters:

What’s the campus social scene like?

What do people do for fun at night and on the weekends?

Is your student jumping right in or still checking it out from a distance?

Ask about school traditions and Greek life.

Students get a lot of education during freshman orientation about safe partying, sexual assault prevention, being an active bystander, and more.

What did your student get out of all that? Does he feel like he’s living on a safe, respectful campus?

Parents can still have a positive influence, and moderation is a choice your student can make.

Educate yourself about rules and resources

Take a few minutes to educate yourself about what’s out there. “College Drinking — Changing the Culture” and the National Institute on Drug Abuse Parents & Educators website are great resources for the latest information.

The availability and variety of drugs (both illegal and misused prescription drugs) might startle you, but becoming literate about the trends will help you talk to your student.

Marijuana is a hot topic these days. What does your student observe? Here is your opportunity to talk about healthier ways to stay alert, deal with stress, and have fun.

It doesn’t hurt to revisit the fact that underage drinking (and all drug use) is illegal and the penalties can be very serious. (Check the college website ahead of time so you know the rules.)

Encourage your student to hang out with the friends he makes through clubs, sports, and other activities that don’t revolve around drinking or drugs.

Be ready to support alternative fun — consider pitching in to sponsor a weekend road trip to ski, camp, or maybe see a play or concert in a nearby city. How about a gift of a new bike, tennis racket, or snowboard, or movie or theatre tickets?

Our own life experiences, and the ways in which we strive to maintain balance and moderation, will be of interest to our students.

They’re on their own, but they are still listening and they do want to live up to our expectations for them.