From A Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students About Alcohol

Many students choose not to drink and the reasons they cite for not doing so can form the cornerstone of your conversations about the disadvantages of drinking. Before discussing these, we must interject a word of caution. If you try strong scare tactics with students by inducing a great deal of fear about negative consequences, then your efforts might actually backfire. Research has shown that when faced with highly fear arousing information, some people will often “turn off” to it and not pay as much attention to it. This is because such information and thoughts are anxiety provoking and people are motivated to avoid anxiety. Why think about something when it is unpleasant to do so? In addition, strong scare tactics will often result in a loss of credibility. If you paint a picture based solely on the dire consequences of drinking and a student fails to see such consequences materialize when he, she, or a friend drinks, then the student will infer that you were wrong or you were exaggerating the consequences. Discuss the negative consequences in a matter of fact, honest, and straightforward fashion.

Students generally know that drinking alcohol under the age of 21 is illegal. However, the general perception is that they will not get caught by the authorities and suffer any legal consequences. The fact is there is some truth to this perception. If, as a parent, you try to convey to your student the idea that there is a high probability of being caught when in fact there is not, then you will probably lose credibility. Instead of taking such a position, we have found it useful simply to remind students about the many ways that they may get caught. Drinking at parties often leads to public disturbances and complaints to police, who will arrest all at the scene who are intoxicated.

What happens if authorities catch a student? This varies from community to community and judge to judge. However, there generally will be substantial costs in legal fees. There will be family embarrassment, since many such arrests are routinely reported in newspapers (not as headlines, of course, but in smaller sections labeled “Police Reports”). The student will also probably experience embarrassment, as he or she is publicly associated through the newspapers with getting caught for alcohol consumption. Prosecution in court may require the parent to take time off from work, thus costing the family money. Our experience has shown that students rarely have thought about even half of the above consequences and that making them more aware of the implications of an arrest may have deterrent value.

Excessive alcohol consumption can have serious negative physical effects. Among other things, it causes damage to the liver, kidneys, brain, and cardiovascular system, which are all long term in nature. There are however, countless instances of students that have had fatal accidents or unsafe sex and contracted a sexually transmitted disease following a single night of heavy drinking. Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon for individuals who vomit from heavy drinking to choke to death.

Alcohol is an irritant to the lining of the digestive system. If too much is consumed, an individual will vomit and the effects on the system can be felt for days (frequently referred to as a “hangover”). Nobody at a party or a social function likes being around someone who is sick. This is complicated by the fact that the sickness one experiences often happens suddenly and with little warning.

Most students have negative images of alcoholics and most do not want to become alcoholics. Most students are also convinced that they can control their drinking and will not become alcoholics. Experts distinguish between three types of drinkers: social drinkers, problem drinkers, and alcoholics:

Indicators of a Possible Drinking Problem

  • Needing a drink to have fun
  • Forgetting what happened while drinking
  • Drinking to feel better about oneself
  • Bragging about tolerance
  • Drinking fast or “guzzling” drinks
  • Drinking in the morning
  • Using alcohol to help solve problems
  • Sneaking drinks
  • Finding reasons to continue drinking
  • Having difficulty stopping
  • Ability to socialize only when drinking

Some individuals pass through stages from social drinking to problem drinking to alcoholism. For others, the addiction may occur after only a few drinks. Some students are genetically disposed towards alcoholism and can become problem drinkers relatively easily. Many students cannot articulate the differences between a social and problem drinker.

A Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students About Alcohol
By Rob Turrisi, Ph.D.
Prevention Research Center, The Pennsylvania State University
© 2010 CO Productions Ltd. All rights reserved.
Note: No part of this text can be used or reproduced without written permission from the author.