Varying Parent Responses
One of the challenges the University faces is the varying response from parents about alcohol use by college students. We have seen parents bring beer and alcohol into the residence halls for their children. (Note: Students are considered in violation of the residence hall policies if their parents bring alcohol into the building. Students are responsible for the actions of their guests, and students may face sanctions because of their parents' alcohol possession.)
Some parents complain that University staff and law enforcement personnel are wasting time and harassing their children when they issue citations to students for alcohol use. After all, they say, "All students drink. It's not a big deal."
We hear some parents express great relief when they move their children to school, believing that students are safer when their social life is focused on campus. "At least they won't be able to drink and drive!"
Other parents believe we should routinely conduct surprise checks of students' rooms for alcohol and immediately remove any offenders from the residence halls. "If they're not 21, it's illegal, so kick them out."
Others view alcohol use as a complicated issue, particularly when students who are close in age, who have classes together, and who socialize together are subject to different legal standing when it comes to alcohol.
Alcohol issues are further complicated because of parents' own experience with drinking as teenagers. Most parents of today's college students were able to drink legally when they were 18 or 19, but when asked at what age parents think drinking should be legal, more than half said 21 or over.
Parent: "When I was in high school, one time I had too much to drink, and my parents found out about it. One day, we were at my parents' house, and they were talking about that time, kind of laughing about it and teasing me, and my son was there. He said, 'You know, I never did that in high school. I didn't drink.' I realized that I had never had any evidence that he drank in high school, but until he said that, I really wasn't sure."
Please consider the following:
How has your attitude toward drinking changed over the years?
On the day when you could first drink legally, did you? What was your experience that day?
Parents Do Make A Difference
When students perceive that their parents know what they are doing and that they disapprove of heavy drinking, they are less likely to binge drink (Wood et al., 2004). Although peers undoubtedly have a strong influence on college student behavior, parents set the foundation for factors such as peer pressure to have less influence on student alcohol use (Barnes et al., 1994). Students' relationships with their parents continue to play a major protective role in promoting their development and success throughout college (Schulenberg & Maggs, 2002).
It is helpful, then, for parents to continue discussing expectations related to alcohol use. At the same time, it is important to be alert for symptoms of alcohol abuse, as noted earlier in this lesson under "Warning Signs".
As many parents and students have noted, talking about alcohol doesn't begin when students go to college. You've probably been talking for years about your expectations related to drinking. The discussions should not stop when your child starts college.
Direct questions - about drinking, sex, finances, or social life - rarely lead to direct answers. If you ask, "Do you drink when you go to parties?" you're likely to receive a defensive answer:
“Where did that come from? Don't you trust me?"
Indirect questions are more likely to lead to genuine discussions and even some personal insights. "Do a lot of students in your residence hall drink?" or "What do students do on the weekends at college?" rather than "What do you do on the weekend?" This allows your student to talk about the social scene without making it personal.
Many of the messages parents have delivered to their student throughout high school are no longer appropriate at the college level. While parents warn their teenager against drinking and driving, college students might party close to campus, and driving is not an issue. Problems arise, though, when students are walking from one party to another or back to a residence hall. The message during the college years might be to avoid walking alone when drunk, or don't drink to the point that you can't get home safely.
Parents also set limits for high school students about going to a friend's house when parents are not around. At the college level, that message might be, "Don't drink with people you don't know," or "Don't go to a party unless you know and trust the host."
Most students have an idea of their parents' level of drinking, but we frequently hear comments like, "My parents don't drink, but I guess I don't really know why not." They may be puzzled by what they see as inconsistency when their parents tell them "Don't drink until you're 21," but then talk about their own drinking as a college student.
Students are making choices about drinking, and it is helpful for them to know how their parents make decisions related to alcohol use. Talk about when and how you have made your choices about drinking.
Suggestions for talking with your student about alcohol use:
- It can be helpful to bring up the topic of drinking in terms of what you've read in the newspaper or seen on TV, again allowing for less personal discussion of the topic. "I saw an article about a college student on the East Coast who died after having too many drinks on her 21st birthday. There are a lot of stories about college kids drinking heavily, and it worries me. Do you see a lot of heavy drinking?"
- Use these opportunities for discussion to talk in general terms about the legal, financial, and health and safety concerns related to drinking. Students do not always know the scope of the problems that can arise.
- If you're talking about the college social life, ask your student what there is to do on campus that doesn't involve drinking. This encourages your student to think about the alternatives.
- If your student talks about a roommate, friend, or neighbor who is drinking, don't respond judgmentally. Listen as your child describes the situation without interrupting or lecturing. Ask how your student is handling the situation or if there is someone who can help. Students frequently don't want to get their friends in trouble, but you can assure your child that he or she deserves a safe, quiet, clean home on campus, and that it is OK to be assertive about ensuring that right.
- Talk about date-rape drugs and the importance of never leaving a beverage unattended or accepting a drink without seeing it poured. This is a way to talk about partying without giving the impression that you assume your student is drinking.
- Students will decline medical care if they are concerned that a clinic or emergency room visit will show up on their parents' insurance statement or if they fear a bill will go to their parents' home. Assure your student that you will respect your student's privacy related to health care, and that you would rather they be safe than decline medical attention.
- As difficult as it may be, if you hear about or discover that your student has been drinking, try to discuss the situation calmly, without accusations or expressions of anger. Ultimately, the most important factor is that students act responsibly in the future, that they don't drink and drive, that they ensure they can get home safely, and that they don't supply alcohol to other underage students. These are the issues that can produce long-lasting negative effects.
Students' Advice for Addressing Drinking
"When I first got to school, I went out kind of a lot. Like I remember I went out one week straight, like every night. And my dad called me, cause I would e-mail him, you know, 'Oh we went out again last night.' He was like, 'What are you doing?' I probably never would've thought of like whoa, this could get kind of addictive. What if I couldn't stop? But I've been lucky, like nothing's happened, you know. I've been really lucky so, I would go out probably the same amount and have just as much fun, do it all again."
"I know my mom worries like 24\7. Really, to me it's like if you're getting the grades, then I guess like you obviously are handling whatever you need to be doing. I mean as long as you're not getting in trouble with the law either with the drinking - 'cause I mean, I don't mind people drinking, just don't get caught. But I mean if you're not getting the drinking tickets and things like that, if you're not getting in trouble with the law and your grades are good, then I think it should be like--the parents should be at ease cause obviously if they are going out kicking it every day, or once a week, they're at least getting what they came to school for. They're getting that education, so as long as they're getting their education and they're not, uh, sending their tickets home or anything like that, then I think that should be okay."
Students say they want their parents to communicate openly about drinking, but the call for open communication generally means "parents should acknowledge that students will have the opportunity to drink." Because parents can't control their student's behavior, like they can during early childhood, students tell us it is ineffective to simply say, "Don't drink."
"You're going to go to a party even if your parents say no, so I don't think they necessarily need to be like 'You can't do this, you can't do this,' because that's not going to do anything. I mean like if they just say, 'If you do this, you should be careful and take more precautions about it,' instead of just telling us don't do this. They should know what's going on, but you know, not necessarily telling you not to do it, because then you're going to anyways."
Parents don't always have an accurate perception of their student's drinking, students said. Moreover, they believe parents expect extremes related to drinking, either assuming their student drinks much more than he or she does, or believing their student doesn't drink at all.
They want open communication, and they believe that at the college level, parents should "give advice, not rules." Students will make their own decisions, they said, but parents have the right to express concern about their child's safety, well-being, and academic success. "We need the experience, we need to learn about drinking on our own. It's just they need to be there as a supporter."
Many students also feel like, "You owe it to your parents to have them know if you are drinking or not at college because it's not good to let them worry about things they don't really even know about."
Most important, parents can trust their child, they said. The messages their parents passed along throughout their child's life stay with them.
Students also have advice for other students: "Be responsible, remember you are here to learn, you are paying for it, so if you have an exam the next day, it's not that smart to go get trashed. I think they need to just remember that schooling is supposed to be coming first. You can experience college life without being enrolled if you're just here for the parties. You can still go to the parties and not be in college."
Please consider the following:
How have you talked with your student about alcohol in the past year?
How would you respond if you found out your student was drinking in college?
What topics related to drinking do you feel most comfortable addressing with your student and why?