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Let’s talk frankly with our students about alcohol

By Susan Jones

As parents, we can and should play a key role in helping our sons and daughters create a healthy, thoughtful relationship with alcohol in college. This important responsibility can’t be outsourced. Our students cannot count on their peers, who are also living in a culture where moderation is not valued, for perspective.

Because binge drinking is common in college — though it is not the norm — students assume it must be okay and safe for them as well. They expect to pass through this portal unharmed. That will absolutely not be the case for many students. Parents need to help students figure out if they are “vulnerable current or potential problem drinkers“(VPDs) and advise them accordingly. Be prepared for the discovery that your student may not be able to drink in college. The combination of youth along with a student’s unique genetic response to alcohol may make the college alcohol environment too dangerous. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. The earlier problem drinking begins, the greater the likelihood of future addiction.

The 1st critical conversation to have before your student leaves for college:

Be sure your student understands that alcohol affects everyone differently. If she wants to emerge from college ever able to drink normally, she needs to be alert to signs of problem drinking in college. Because “everyone else is doing it” does not mean it will be safe for her.  If at any point she becomes worried about her relationship with alcohol, tell her to let you know and you will help her figure out how to get advice and support, or she can go directly to student health services.

The 2nd critical conversation for parents to have with students after first semester and throughout college as needed:

Ask your student very directly: What kind of effect does alcohol have on you? Are you feeling comfortable about your alcohol use? Have you gotten into any compromising situations because of it that you regret?

How do I know if my student is a “Vulnerable Problem Drinker” (VPD)?

Here are some risk factors:

  • A family history of alcoholism
  • Acquiring a taste for alcohol early (high school or before)
  • Being impulsive or capable of poor judgment in social or academic situations independent of alcohol; may be a disinterested or struggling student
  • Having a high capacity for drinking large amounts of alcohol without adverse physical reactions, triggering a taste for large amounts of alcohol
  • Or being very reactive to alcohol and prone to sickness, blackouts or irresponsible behavior after even one or two drinks
  • Being disinterested in drinking in moderation.

 What should I do if I believe my student is a VPD?

  • Don’t assume the problem will get better by itself, or imagine it’s “just a phase” your student will outgrow.
  • In a similar vein, do not allow your student to take blackouts or risky sexual behavior lightly. These behaviors are not healthy or acceptable. Refer your student to a mental health professional at school.
  • Make sure she gets actively involved with the alcohol recovery community on campus. Be extremely encouraging about this. When she’s home for vacations, steer her towards a local recovery group.
  • Greek membership is not to blame for the misbehavior of its members, but your student’s housing and social affiliations are going to play a big role in how much and how safely she drinks. Discourage membership in a fraternity or sorority unless your student can investigate the alcohol culture to see if there is ample opportunity for participating in divergent drinking styles.
  • If your student continues to exhibit problem behavior, it may be time to consider a semester off along with outpatient or inpatient rehab.

Susan Jones is CEO of Quad2Quad, the award-winning mobile app for college visits. For more than three decades, she was a psychotherapist in Washington D.C. specializing in substance abuse, and she spent ten years with Dunbar Educational Consultants counseling students and families on the college admission process. Most importantly, Susan is the mother of two grown sons who successfully navigated the college alcohol culture and had enjoyable and productive experiences, emerging as solid citizens with no regrets.

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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