It’s no secret: college students often develop a lifestyle and habits that fall outside the family value system in which they were raised. This can include experimentation with drugs and alcohol, which can be quite alarming for parents. Not only is the actual substance use concerning, but parents also face the challenge of navigating this new stage of parenting an adult child, and that can be scary, too.
Sure, you want to encourage them to think for themselves, grow in maturity, and be an individual, but you may also wonder if you’ve taught them enough to make good decisions, stay safe and be responsible. How do you know what is “normal” for this stage of life and when to seek help?
First, maintain perspective. Recognize that drug and alcohol related activities are the norm for college age students. In reality, most students will outgrow any problems associated with substance use. We don’t endorse the use of substances, but we think it’s important to remember that it is often a part of the college years.
Try to Relate
Second, try to relate. Recall your own history. How is your child’s behavior similar to or different from yours at the same age? Chances are your behavior was similar to your child’s and it likely taught you some valuable lessons as you were growing up.
This is also a great time to reflect on who had the greatest positive influence on you. How can you aim to have that same positive influence on your child? Are there other people who might be able to provide some positive guidance? Now is a great time to evaluate your influence on your child, be a model for healthy behaviors, and connect them with good role models.
Safety Is the Standard
Third, talk frankly about how to experiment with substances safely. Even if you think your child is unlikely to try drugs or alcohol, there aren’t any guarantees. If you’re not sure how to approach this with your child, start by asking some questions and find out what they already know. The goal is to set them up for success and help them avoid major harm as they explore the world.
Here are some discussion points to get you started:
- Be a responsible friend and expect the same – don’t leave your friends alone at a party, encourage safe/responsible behavior
- Use common sense: never leave a drink unattended, be aware of your surroundings, etc.
- Always use a designated driver
- If you are going to try drugs or alcohol, start small. Drinking and using like an experienced user is likely to lead to trouble
- If you drink, know the concentration of the alcohol you are consuming and adjust accordingly
- Street substances may come with dangerous adulterants
- Effects of a drug can vary depending on method of consumption (eating vs. smoking, etc.)
- Certain drugs have higher potential for addiction
- Signs/symptoms of potential overdose
- Who to call or what to do in case of an emergency
Finally, think carefully about the boundaries you want to establish, then stick to them. Remember that no family is exactly like yours and it is ultimately up to you to decide what is acceptable to you and what isn’t. However, learning what other families have decided can be quite helpful. Ask your friends how they handle certain issues, check out a SMART Recovery Family & Friends meeting, or talk with a professional who has experience in helping guide parents through these stages.
Once you determine your boundaries, you’ll need to communicate them to your child. Clearly establish your rules, expectations and consequences. Finding the language to express this in a respectful yet firm way can be challenging. You might find the following examples helpful when considering how to approach these conversations:
- “If I discover that you drove while drinking, we’ll need to renegotiate your driving privileges.”
- “I understand you may be using some substances in addition to alcohol. However, I don’t want any in the house. If I find any I’ll dispose of them.”
- “Although I don’t like being awakened in the middle of the night, you may call me at any time if you need a safe ride home.”
- “I can accept alcohol use, if you commit to drinking safely. I want to hear a detailed plan about how safe drinking is going to occur. I need to hear that plan before you have access to the car.”
- “I can accept some substance use, in addition to alcohol use, if you commit to using and drinking safely. I want to hear a detailed plan about how safe drinking and using is going to occur. I need to hear that plan before you have access to the car.”
- “Although I can accept alcohol use, if I discover that you are using any other substances I will investigate thoroughly and formulate consequences at that time. I understand that you are curious, but you are still under my care. You will be free to choose to use these substances when you are paying your own bills and buying them with your own money.”
Get Help if Necessary
In some circumstances, you may find that your child’s drinking or using truly seems problematic. The problem may be more serious if:
- they’ve shown a significant drop in attendance or grades (due to drinking/using)
- they are preoccupied with alcohol or drugs (or related activities)
- you are concerned about changes in their mood
- their decisions and actions are life-threatening
- you are concerned about their choice of friends
- they have become unusually withdrawn or isolated
- their friends express concern about your child’s drinking/using
- they express trouble with an addictive behavior
You know your child better than anyone. If your parental intuition tells you that something is really wrong, listen to it.
If treatment is needed, there are several options including individual therapy, intensive outpatient treatment, and inpatient rehab. You’ll want to ask several questions when searching for a treatment provider, including whether they have experience treating your child’s age group, the expected length of stay, whether they treat underlying depression/anxiety/trauma (if it applies to your child) and whether they support family involvement during treatment. Of course, you’ll come up with many of your own questions too – don’t be afraid to speak up and ask.
Regardless of the age of your child, your job as parent and protector is not over. While you may not have as much influence now as you did when they were minors living in your home, you can still be involved, aware and maintain a strong presence in their lives.