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Parents and their college age kids: talking about alcohol

Posted at 4:05 PM on January 14, 2008 by Nanci Olesen

The rate of binge drinking by young people in Minnesota is among the worst in the nation. There have been at least four deaths from binge drinking in the last few months.

What can parents do to keep their children safe when those kids are no longer under their roof?

College students are prone to participate in risky behavior. A report from the Institutes of Health says that brain development is not complete until we are about 25. We are less able to fully understand the consequences of our risky behavior until that age.

The college student is exposed to a whole new way of life the moment he or she steps onto campus. The feeling of independence can make one giddy. I remember this feeling from my first days in college: “Wow. I’m still out goofing around and it’s 4:30 a.m.!!”

In the past few years, psychologists have started using a new term for 18-25 year olds: “emerging adults.” During this period of time, the young adult is described as being self focused, feeling “in-between” and full of possibilities. Because people are settling down later- at the end of their twenties—and marrying later—this period of time is like an extension of adolescence.

Developmentally these emerging adults are not quite grown up. They’re still defining themselves as independent beings. They’re very influenced by peers.

But parents still can have an influence. I talked with directors of student affairs at several colleges and asked them: How can parents use the influence they still have to keep their kids from getting into trouble with alcohol?

They told me that these days parents communicate more frequently with their students than they did when I was in school. It used to be that parents dropped their kids off at their college or university in September. Maybe there was a phone call or a letter twice a month. Now, with cell phones and email, parents are often in DAILY contact with their college-aged kids. One dean I spoke with talked about how a kid found out he got a “d” on a test and as he was leaving the class he was calling his mom. Within moments the professor received an email from the mom.

So how do we use that electronic connection to help our kids stay safe?

The college officials I talked to said it’s a delicate balancing act. You want to influence, but not hover.

Everyone I talked to recommended that parents communicate very openly about alcohol and risky behavior with their kids.

There are key questions on the University of Minnesota’s parent newsletter for parents to ask kids.

It’s important to stay involved, ask questions, stay alert, AND at the same time don’t pry-- don’t go over the top.

And they say it’s important to start talking about drinking before your child has left home. Preparing for college and the move out of the house has to include conversation about alcohol use.

But that conversation needs to be ongoing. Deans and directors warned parents to not think, “I had that talk about alcohol with my kid three years ago.”

Stay in touch. But not too much.

And it’s important to try to get it right, for you and your kid.

Still, you can do everything right and still get a call from the college at three in the morning from the emergency room. This realization has hit me hard as I gathered information for this story. My son is a senior in high school. My husband and I are trying to keep the lines of communication open and to prepare the best we can for his departure. Can he make good decisions for himself? Can we communicate the way we should?

What has your experience been with talking about alcohol with college kids?

Resources and links:

Minnesota Public Radio’s Special Report: Death by Drinking

Making a Difference: Talking to Your Child About Alcohol

University of Minnesota Parent Newsletter: Students and Alcohol / A Guide for Parents