Health & Safety

How do I talk to my student about staying healthy in college?

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By Diane Schwemmm

When our students head off to college, they become responsible for taking care of their own health. That can be a scary prospect for parents!

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High School Parent | College Parent

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. And the reality is that college environments include many opportunities for unhealthy behaviors.

The good news: even as students transition to adult independence, parents can continue to support and influence them. With preparation, talking about health can become a natural part of regular conversations with your student.

Step 1: Familiarize yourself with campus resources

When it comes to talking to your student about 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. Starting during Orientation, colleges work hard to make sure students know what resources are available. 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 student’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. Gathering accurate information will help you talk about this with your student.

A great place to start is www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov. 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 reputation, are combating binge drinking in innovative ways — a good conversation starter with your student.

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 reasonable to suggest a weekly phone date. Then, temper your expectations. Every phone call won’t be stellar, though 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 student moved into the dorm, of course! But if you didn’t, it’s never too late. Particularly for freshmen, the early weeks of the year are critical as students 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 student 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 student getting to know his/her Resident Counselor? Be aware of the rhythm of the school year as it might impact 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 student 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 hard). Our expectations should remain high, but our students 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. Early and often, express your confidence in your student’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 need to make time for rest and renewal, too. So, at some point today, slow down. Pour a cup of tea, play with the family dog, visit a friend.

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.

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