How to start the conversation about college drinking with your kids

Parents who discuss the hazards of excessive drinking with their kids have a major impact on their children’s alcohol consumption.

Photo courtesy of michelaubryphoto/AdobeStock

By Carol Forster, M.D.

If you have a young person heading off to college this fall, in addition to packing a shower caddy and extra-long sheets, make sure to talk to your child about drinking alcohol—and its consequences.

Many teens leave for college with some drinking experience under their belt. They might have attended a few parties in high school or experimented with friends in a familiar setting, but college presents a whole new level of freedom and choice that can make many feel out of their league. The first six weeks of freshman year can be a particularly risky time as students adjust to new social and educational pressures. With more unstructured time, fewer interactions with parents and other adults, inconsistently enforced underage drinking laws and easier access to alcohol, it’s no wonder that on average 3 out of every 5 college students say they drink. And 2 out of every 3 of those report engaging in binge drinking, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Binge drinking is classified as a pattern of drinking that results in a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher. Body weight and gender both play a role in how quickly someone reaches that BAC, but a rough guide is four drinks for women and five for men within a two-hour period.

While it’s important to have a conversation about alcohol—or a series of them—I know how hard it can be. I’ve had many parents of college-aged patients ask me for advice. I tell them that as parents, they can play a major role in their college student’s drinking behavior. Research has shown that parents who discuss the hazards of excessive drinking with their kids have a major impact on their children’s decision to avoid alcohol completely.

Here are four tips to keep in mind when talking with your college student about drinking.

Make it factual—and personal

While you don’t want to sound like a fact sheet, it can be helpful to include a few statistics to drive your points home, especially those that show how alcohol impairs decision-making. For instance, about half of all perpetrators of sexual assault in college were under the influence of alcohol. From an educational standpoint, about 1 in 4 students say they’ve suffered academic consequences due to drinking, whether that’s missing class or earning lower grades. The NIAAA offers these and other very telling statistics on its website dedicated to addressing college drinking.

Pick and choose what you think might resonate most, but don’t overdo it—a barrage of numbers without context can keep your teen from taking the discussion to heart.

And while facts matter, they alone won’t engage your kids without making it personal. If you can share an experience that might touch them, you’re more likely to have a lasting impact. Of course, if you decide to share a story from your own past, be prepared for in-depth questions. It’s important to be open, but be sure to plan ahead so you’re prepared to answer tough questions about past choices.

Explain the differences among drinks

Rather than expecting your college student not to drink at all, it might be helpful to discuss how much alcohol is in a cup of beer, a glass of wine and a shot of liquor to better track what’s consumed over a given time period. Believe it or not, this is not common knowledge among most young people, even if they have already been drinking.

In the United States, a standard drink has about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That works out to 12 ounces of beer (with 5 percent alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (with 12 percent alcohol content) or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (such as vodka, tequila and whiskey with 40 percent alcohol content or 80 proof).

That being said, the likelihood of getting a standard-size drink at a party is low. Remind your kids that they might not know what’s in the cup they were handed, or it could be a lot stronger than what they’re used to. You might suggest they make a plan before drinking. This should include making sure they’ve eaten enough, staying hydrated, knowing their limit and keeping track of the amount they’ve consumed. They should also get their own drinks (and avoid putting their drink down where it could be tampered with). And they should always have a plan in place for a safe way to get home.

Talk about consequences

Drinking, specifically binge drinking, can result in academic problems, physical or sexual assault, injury and even death. One of the most common concerns parents come to me with is sexual assault. I counsel parents to be honest with kids about their worries. Let them know that alcohol can cloud judgment, and they might end up in a dangerous situation or one they regret later.

You can also remind your student that there are plenty of ways to enjoy college without drinking. Many campuses these days offer alcohol-free events, such as movie nights or live music. And most campuses now offer substance-free dorms.

Check in

Weekly calls with your student, particularly during the first few weeks away from home, can go a long way toward reinforcing the conversations you had about drinking before they left for school. This can give you a read on how things are going. Rather than directly asking if your child has been drinking, ask general questions such as, “What did you do last week?” or, “How is your coursework going?”

Few know a child as well as his or her parents, and you’ll likely be able to get a good sense if something is off. Look for patterns in their answers. If you suspect your student might have a problem with alcohol or other substances and aren’t sure of next steps, you can often contact the on-campus student health center or counselors for help. You can also consider reaching out to your child’s friends if you feel comfortable doing so and think your child might respond better to peer outreach. Over the years, I’ve increasingly seen adolescents step up when a friend is having trouble, so don’t discount this option.

In the end, it’s up to your teen to make decisions about drinking in college. But the sooner you start the conversation, the more of a positive impact you can have.

For more information about alcohol’s impact on various organs and alcohol cost and calorie counters, visit the NIAAA’s College Drinking: Changing the Culture website.

Carol Forster, M.D., is the physician director of pharmacy and therapeutics/medication safety with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group in the Washington, D.C., area.