How to talk to your child about teen drug abuse before they leave for college



You’ve made it through the teenage years – your child successfully completed high school and is off to college. For both parents and their children, this is both an exciting and nerve-wracking time. Though your teenager is growing up, their brains are still developing, and they are still in the habit of risk-taking. Relative immaturity and newfound independence can be a dangerous mix, which is the reason why so many young adults fall into trouble during their college years.

As a parent, you still play a vital role in the development of your young adult into a successful professional. Know how to talk to your teen about the risks at college, scenarios they may encounter, and how they can handle them. When you approach these conversations in the right way, your teen will trust you and come to you for advice.

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The importance of difficult conversations

The underage drinking conversation is a difficult one to have, but it is an important one. Come on too strong, and you could seem judgmental, which will turn your young adult off and could entice them to keep secrets. On the other hand, being too casual can make it seem like you’re condoning illegal or dangerous actions. It’s rarely productive for the parent to act like a friend.

Talking with your teen about drinking can be uncomfortable. Some parents may feel disingenuous for cautioning their teens against behavior they engaged in themselves. Others may feel that making mistakes is a right of passage. While young adults must learn some lessons for themselves, the perils of underage drinking should not be one of them. Heavy drinking during the college years can have long-ranging consequences, including teen alcoholism or drug addiction.

The prevalence of teenage alcoholism

The culture of underage drinking on college campuses is often fodder for TV comedies, but the reality is not a laughing matter. The 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 57.2% of college students aged 18 to 22 reported past-month alcohol use, and 38% reported past-month binge drinking (consuming five drinks or more in a single occasion for men or 4 drinks or more in a single occasion for women). Binge and heavy drinking rates are higher among college students than their same-age non-college peers.

The costs of underage drinking are also more devastating than what some parents realize. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) notes that college-age drinking (18-24) contributes to 1,519 student fatalities, 696,000 assaults, and 97,000 sexual assaults or instances of rape each year.

Unfortunately, many young people – and some of their parents – view destructive decisions such as underage drinking as rites of passage. Fraternity and sorority culture often uses drinking as a form of hazing. Young people, thrown into new social situations, may feel peer pressure to drink in order to earn the approval of a new group of friends. Still, others may turn to alcohol in order to cope with the stresses of being away from home or burdened by new workloads. Though underage drinking is common, it can set the stage for later drinking problems, including teenage alcoholism.

Teen drug abuse, teenage alcoholism and family roles

The conversations that you, as a parent, have with the young adult in your life can set them up for future positive decisions.

On the other hand, dysfunctional parent-child communication can lead to a spiral of destructive decision-making that lays the groundwork for alcohol abuse or mental health problems. For example, enabling college drinking by viewing it as a “rite of passage” sends the wrong message to the young adult in your life and ultimately shows them it is okay to participate in risky behaviors. Long-term alcohol consumption can lead to dependency and ultimately a cycle of addiction.

At the same time, extremely strict parenting can also lead to long-term delinquency, and children may even be more likely to engage in substance abuse. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescence, authoritarian parents – those who rule with an iron fist without eliciting the input of their children – are the most likely to raise children who are disrespectful of parental authority. The appropriate balance involves discipline and setting standards for behavior, but also being receptive to a child’s needs and exercising empathy.

Parents may influence their children’s behavior more than they realize, even when they become young adults. A codependent parent might enable their young adult’s destructive behavior or addiction because they are terrified of no longer being needed. Understanding family roles to fix dysfunctional family behavior can give your young adult the foundation they need to make healthy decisions.

How to talk to your teen about drug and Alcohol abuse

How, then, is the best way to have difficult conversations with your teen or young adult, without appearing too strict or too permissive? Consider some main points:

  • Tone: A permissive parent may try to play the role of the friend, while an authoritarian parent may simply threaten a list of punishments for falling out of line. An appropriate mix of authority and empathy will address the child’s needs while outlining some of the possible consequences. For example: “I understand that there will be underage drinking on campus, and you might feel tempted to drink too. But drinking in college can put you in danger and set you up for unhealthy coping habits. How else can you relax with your friends instead?”
  • Conversation: There is a difference between talking “at” your teen and talking “with” your teen about difficult conversations like underage drinking. You might be compelled to list facts or statistics about assault or drinking-related crime on campus, but this is more likely to fall on inattentive ears. Instead, open a dialogue with your teen by asking open-ended questions, controlling your emotions, and discussing possible real-world effects that your young adult can relate to. For example, underage drinking could cause your teen to lose a scholarship or get their driver’s license revoked.
  • Past experiences: One of the biggest questions parents have is if they should reveal their history of underage drinking. In general, if a teen asks if you drank underage, don’t lie. However, it is also important to emphasize that drinking did not do you any good. This conversation can be a good opportunity to reemphasize what the expectations are for your child.

Talking with your teen or young adult about teen drug abuse, alcoholism and underage drinking can be difficult. If you had past struggles with alcohol use in adolescence, you may even feel disingenuous.

However, these conversations are vital ones to have with your child, as college is a stressful time that can lead to unhealthy coping habits or even lay the groundwork for teenage alcoholism.

Framing the conversation the right way can encourage your child to lean on you for support while also making healthy decisions.

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Cheree Ashley
Cheree Ashley
Cheree Ashley is the CEO and founder of Bright Future Recovery, a family-oriented substance abuse treatment center in northern California. Their adolescent detox program is geared toward helping children with substance abuse issues recover from addiction and cultivate healthier habits and coping strategies. As a leader in the industry, Cheree enjoys sharing her knowledge with other practitioners and clinicians within the health care community and while providing case management and intervention services for over five years. Learn more about her latest book, Balance Life, Lessons & Success, on her website.
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