From A Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students About Alcohol

It is important for parents to recognize that there will be “positive” reasons (at least from the student’s perspective) for why they choose to drink. If parents only choose to focus discussions on the negative aspects of drinking, ignoring the positive aspects, they run the risk of losing credibility in their son’s or daughter’s eyes. Also, you need to help your son or daughter put these “positive” motivations in perspective so that they do not start to drink because of them. Here are some of the major ones that research has shown impact drinking behavior.

Some students believe that drinking is one way to celebrate a special occasion. For example, a friend may suggest to your son or daughter that they have a few beers after finishing an important assignment. It is important that you talk with your son or daughter about alternative ways of celebrating such as: (1) suggesting that your son or daughter go shopping for something special (e.g., clothes, music, sporting goods); (2) suggesting an outing, such as dinner, that would include a few special friends; and/or (3) offering to have friends over for a small dinner party (without alcohol). Encourage your student to tell you about significant things that happen in his or her life and then try to help him or her celebrate positively.

Often the highlight of the day after drinking are the post-party war stories about who drank the most shots, who blacked-out, and who had the worst hangover. Although some students view these outcomes as badges of honor, our findings suggest that hangovers, black-outs, and heavy drinking are associated with accidents, rapes, unsafe sex, arrests, missed work, failed courses, and general victimization. It is important to understand that the data shows that both males and females who black-out from drinking are victims of sexual coercion.

Another important reason why students drink is the influence of friends. Your son or daughter may feel pressured to drink. This pressure can be direct, as in the form of someone handing him a beer at a party, or it can be indirect, such as when he or she wants to be part of a group and that group experiments with alcohol. Parents CANNOT choose their student’s friends for them. However, parents can help their son or daughter understand the dynamics of peer pressure and stress the importance of being his or her own person. Finally, parents and students can talk about situations that could come up, such as a friend introducing alcohol at a party, so that students can anticipate how to react.

Some students believe that drinking alcohol adds to sexual experiences, but it is important to warn your son or daughter about the dangers in mixing alcohol and sex. First, because alcohol impairs judgment, students may do things that they may regret later on, such as have sex with someone that, if sober, they would choose not to, or going further sexually than they are interested. Second, alcohol may decrease your son’s or daughter’s ability to prevent someone from forcing them to have sex. Finally, there is considerable scientific evidence to indicate that students are much more likely to engage in unprotected intercourse if they have been drinking, thereby increasing the chances of an unintended pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease, such as AIDS.

Many students believe that alcohol will help them get in a better mood. They should know that it is normal to feel sad and stressed at times. They should also find alternate ways to regulate their mood without alcohol or other drugs (e.g., caffeine). Exercise is always a good alternative to help improve one’s mood. It is also important to explain to your son or daughter that the “high” from alcohol is accompanied by extreme lows as well.

Another reason students give for drinking is that alcohol helps reduce worries. Parents should talk with their sons or daughters to find out about what worries them and help the student directly confront these worries in a realistic fashion. Parents can also point out the need to confront problems directly rather than avoid them and note that the problem does not go away because you drink (and, in fact, it may become worse).

Another reason students give for drinking is that they believe that alcohol helps make it easier to express feelings or talk with members of the opposite sex. Parents need to be sensitive to how difficult it is for students to communicate in a new environment where they are unlikely to know anybody. Parents should point out that while often releasing inhibitions, alcohol actually could cloud judgments, making students think that they are communicating better when, in fact, they are not. Often times alcohol interferes with communication about what is okay and what is not. This can lead to unwanted sexual advances, arguments, and sometimes fights.

Some students get bored and turn to alcohol as a means of getting excitement out of their lives. To confront this, you can offer alternatives that your son or daughter can pursue. Some examples include getting involved in sports, hobbies, music, dance, games, reading, and school clubs. Students could also become involved in volunteer activities that are associated with causes they really care about, such as protecting the environment or promoting literacy. This is a good way to meet others with similar interests and also to feel good about themselves. Many students go to parties or have parties as a means of entertainment. Drinking frequently occurs in such settings and it is important that you provide suggestions on how students can enjoy themselves without alcohol. Here are some such suggestions:

  1. Try to meet three new people.
  2. Try to find individuals who share common interests other than drinking.
  3. Try to think about topics for conversation before going to the party to keep the focus of the conversation away from drinking or not drinking.
  4. Never drink from a glass that has been out of your sight. Unfortunately there are some predators who use drugs to facilitate committing sexual assault.

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.