How to Prepare Your Teen for Exposure to Drugs in College

experimentation with drugs and alcohol, Drugs in College, mom with teen daughter smiling and hugging on park bench, How to Prepare Your Teen to Stay Sober in College

By Cristina Utti

Your child has made it through high school. They have prepared for and taken the SAT’s. They have researched and applied to colleges, and now the time has come. Your child will be venturing out on their own, into a new social circle.

We know that experimentation with drugs and alcohol often begins in adolescence. Teenagers and young adults think that they are invincible and do not see the link between their actions of today and the consequences that may arise from them tomorrow. Parents should have ongoing conversations with their child about drugs and alcohol as soon as they hit their teenage years, if not before. If you have never approached this topic with your child, do not fret; it is never too late, even if they have already left home.

Studies have shown that roughly half of mental illnesses emerge by the age of 13 and two-thirds by the age of 24. In other words, mental illnesses, including drug and/or alcohol addiction, are conditions that may arise as your child begins their first steps toward independence. Dr. Carlos Blanco of Columbia University did a study of college students and found that almost one out of two college-aged students struggled with some type of mental disorder. That number is alarmingly high. The best protection we can give our children is an open line of communication, stability, and trust.

Parents who have already had conversations about alcohol, drugs, and sex are a step ahead of the game. By the time your child is leaving for college, the groundwork for these types of open conversations has already been laid. But even if your child has never experimented with substances while living at home, remember that indulging in drug and alcohol use is considered the ‘norm’ among college students. The stress of leaving home for the first time, along with the intensified academic and social demands of school, put youth at risk for alcohol and drug use. Parents need to do more than just enforce the importance of saying ‘no’.

Here are some steps parents can take to help ensure a smooth transition into college and beyond:

  • Learn the school’s drug and alcohol policies. All colleges have a drug and alcohol policy. Find out about these policies and discuss them with your child.
  • Communicate your expectations to your child. Make sure these are clear and reasonable. We do not want to add stress to their departure; we want to convey love and support.
  • Listen to what your child has to say about their experiences with drugs and alcohol, or how they feel about trying it. Ask them what their expectations are for college.
  • Let your child know that you will always be there for them. If the teenage years were rough, and a bond of trust has not been formed between you, now is a good time to start. Even if they put up a good front, any human being entering into a new phase of life has some anxiety. Keep an open ear and an open mind. If your child tells you things that shock you, keep emotions in check. Expressing anger, disappointment, and judgment over their choices and/or behaviors will only push them away. Your child will be more likely to share things with you if you do not freak out over every little thing. Stay calm.
  • Plan of Action. Discuss a plan of action that your child can have if they find themselves in uncomfortable situations. What if there is constant partying in their dorm every weekend? Perhaps they can come home weekends. What if their roommate is loud, has people over constantly, and drinks every night? (It is wise to know the policy of switching dorms before your child enters into the college.) Maybe they can go to the library and come back to their room at a later hour. Maybe they can request to move. Whatever the problem may be, let your child know that there is a solution, and that they can come to you to talk.

College years are a time of learning not only academics, but also our identities. Give your child the space to grow, while leaving them a rope of love.

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Kessler, R. C., PhD, Amminger, G. P., MD, Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., MD, PhD, Alonso, J., MD, Lee, S., MD, & Ustun, T. B., MD. (n.d.). Age of onset of mental disorders: A review of recent literature. Retrieved March, 2016.