The teenage years are a unique time. Teens spend a lot of energy defining their identities, their peer relationships and their social roles, and they learn skills like planning for the future and understanding consequences. Not surprisingly, this is also a time when teens push limits and take risks.
Risk-taking and novelty-seeking behaviors are a common, and often healthy, part of the college experience. College students may seek out new friendships, new academic experiences, new leadership positions and new social roles. The newfound freedom may, however, present challenges for any teen, especially as they learn how to navigate the college drinking scene. Alcohol use is common on college campuses and is intimately related to risk-taking behavior. Exposure to alcohol may not be entirely new for college-bound students -- in fact, a 2013 national survey showed that most (68.2%) of high school seniors had tried alcohol, and over half had been drunk -- but the exposure may become more intense at college where students are often operating under less structure and oversight.
Fortunately, many college-bound adolescents handle these new challenges appropriately and make healthy decisions to keep themselves and their friends safe. As a parent, you can help facilitate a successful transition by opening a dialogue before your teen goes to college and then maintaining the conversation throughout his/her college years.
- Prepare by opening an early dialogue. Realize that drinking (and often binge drinking) is common on college campuses and that your student will probably feel pressure to drink. Talk about this with your teen during the summer and make sure he/she is ready for this challenge. Read the college manual with him/her, check out the website and learn how your teen's college approaches drinking on campus. Let your teen know that some schools do involve the local or campus police if there is underage drinking. Discuss your expectations about drinking with your student -- as well as the reasons why you think it's dangerous. Brainstorm with your teen about ways to negotiate the drinking scene and discuss safety options if he/she ends up in a tricky situation. And, of course, reiterate that it is never OK to drink and drive or ride in a car with a friend who has been drinking.
- Know the facts. Find out the answers to the following questions so your teen is ready once he or she gets to campus. What transit options does the college offer for students if they cannot drive? What are some emergency resources available at school if your teen (or his/her friend) needs help? What activities are available for students that don't involve alcohol?
- Keep in touch. Do so especially during the first few weeks, when heavy drinking often takes place. Those who drink heavily during the first few weeks of classes tend to have a harder time adapting to college life later on as the work gets more demanding. Periodically ask your teen about the drinking scene at college -- do his/her friends drink, do the sports teams drink, do campus clubs drink?
- Stay involved. If there is a parents' visiting day, go! Check that your teen is doing well and meet his/her friends and roommates. Keep an eye on your student's grades -- some colleges will share them with you, others may not, and you may need to ask your teen to show them to you. Heavy drinking often results in missed classes and poor grades.
- Monitor the situation. Depending on his/her plans, you may need to have a special conversation with your child about drinking and initiation practices. Although 44 states have anti-hazing laws, many college clubs, teams and housing groups participate in initiation "rites of passage" that involve risky behaviors and may include drinking heavily. Make it clear that your teen does not have to drink to fit it in since hazing is widely banned.
- Continue the conversation. Asking once is not enough, as the landscape and issues often change over the course of your student's first year away. Keeping an open dialogue, starting early and revisiting it often with your teen will be crucial to building a strong relationship throughout his/her college years. Remember: Providing your teen with the right amount of freedom to make his/her own choices and construct his/her own moral boundaries is a critical part of your teen's overall maturation process.
The college years can be one of the most memorable periods in your teen's life, a time when your child will discover his/her own identity and forge lifelong friendships. It can be fun, yet there will be challenges; preparing him/her ahead of time can help ease this critical transition.
Have questions for Dr. Soren? Please ask in the comments section!
For more tips and free resources on how to talk with your teen about underage drinking, visit the Health Alliance on Alcohol website.
Dr. Lee Shearer, Adolescent Medicine and Internal Medicine physician at Cornell Weil Medical College, contributed to this piece.