5 Things Parents Should Know About Alcohol Abuse Before Sending Their Kid to College

College drinking is an ongoing problem on many campuses, despite efforts to curb it. Many parents are not fully aware of the problem and the risks to their students. They must learn the facts about campus drinking and be transparent with their college-bound kids about the potential consequences of drinking to excess. Parents can and do influence their children’s choices and behaviors on campus.

College is the perfect storm of conditions for binge drinking and heavy drinking. Kids are no longer under the direct supervision of their parents. They face peer pressure and want to fit in when making new friends. And, of course, most college campuses have abundant alcohol available.

College drinking is a real problem, both for public health and for individuals. For your college-bound teen, excessive drinking could lead to academic problems, a substance use disorder, injuries and accidents, assaults, and in the worst case scenario, death.

The good news is that teens do listen to their parents. Your open expectations for your child make a difference and influence their choices. Here’s what you need to know.

1. The Consequences of Drinking Too Much Can Be Immediate and Serious.

Most people understand that there are long-term consequences of years of heavy drinking, including alcoholism, liver disease, and even death. What many don’t stop to consider are the potential short-term consequences and how serious they can be.

Share these frightening government statistics about the consequences of college drinking with your teen:

  • Approximately 1,500 college students die from unintentional injuries related to alcohol each year. These include car accidents but also other types of accidents, like falls.
  • Nearly 700,000 college students are assaulted by another student under the influence of alcohol.
  • Getting accurate numbers for sexual assaults on campus is challenging, but approximately one in five women in college will experience such an assault. Most of these incidents involve alcohol or drugs.
  • About 25% of college students suffer academically due to drinking.
  • Nearly 9% of college students already meet the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.

Additionally, drinking in college increases the risk of a suicide attempt, physical health problems, risky sex, and police incidents.

2. Binge Drinking Is Less Than Most People Realize.

Moderate drinking is not generally a problem, but heavy and binge drinking can cause these serious consequences. A major issue is that many people have no idea what constitutes a drink, too many drinks, or binge drinking.

Binge drinking is any drinking pattern that raises blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 or higher. The amount of alcohol it takes to reach this stage varies by individual. In general, it is five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks in two hours for women.

Many people also fail to understand what constitutes a single drink and over-drink as a result:

  • 12 ounces of a regular beer that is about 5% alcohol by volume
  • 5 ounces of approximately 12% wine
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled liquor that is 40% alcohol

Make sure your child bound for college understands not just the consequences of binge drinking, but also what it means.

3. It Is Possible To Overdose and Die From Drinking.

This isn’t a fact meant to scare parents unnecessarily, but it is important to be aware of the severe consequences of severe binge drinking. Fatalities from alcohol poisoning occur every year on campuses around the country.

These incidents are sometimes the result of hazing, an abusive practice some fraternities inflict on new members. In 2021, Stone Foltz, just 20, died of alcohol poisoning during hazing at Bowling Green State University. As part of the ritual, Foltz was encouraged to drink a liter of liquor in under 19 minutes. Not only did he lose his life, but several fraternity members were convicted of crimes.

Certain drugs available on campuses make drinking to excess even riskier. In 2022, Ciaya Whetstone, a University of New Orleans student, died after taking fentanyl and binge drinking. Both substances have a sedative effect, increasing the risk of accidental death.

4. There Are Risk Factors for College Binge Drinking.

Having risk factors is not a guarantee that your child will struggle with alcohol in college. On the other hand, if your child has several of these, it’s important to be aware that they are at greater risk and could benefit from more protective factors. Risk factors for college binge drinking include:

  • Early onset of drinking, such as in high school
  • Being white and male
  • Being naturally impulsive or thrill-seeking
  • For women, having anxiety
  • Using alcohol as a coping mechanism or to fit in with others

Certain events and times also pose greater risks for students. For instance, holidays that encourage drinking can be problematic: St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, homecoming and Greek events.

The more aware you and your child are of the risk factors and risky events, the more educated they will be to make smarter choices about drinking.

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5. Parents Do Influence Their Children’s Drinking

Don’t assume your children aren’t listening or following your example. What parents say and do regarding alcohol can have a positive influence on teen and college drinking. The message you send matters.

Many parents think that allowing their children to drink in moderation as teens is a healthy way to teach responsible drinking. The idea is that when alcohol is a forbidden fruit, children will be more likely to drink excessively later.

Research finds that, in general, this isn’t true. Studies show that when parents set clear expectations about not drinking in high school, their children are less likely to drink to excess in college. In one study, college students who did not drink during high school drank less on average than those who did—1.8 drinks at a time compared to five drinks on one occasion.

How To Talk to Your Child About Drinking

Before you send your child off to campus for their freshman year, talk to them about drinking. Share these facts with them, and take encouragement from the research that shows you can influence their choices, even when you’re not there. Here are some tips:

  • Have more than one conversation. For the best results, make this an ongoing conversation. Strike a balance between one quick talk and constantly hounding them about drinking. Make it a discussion you have once in a while, triggered by a news story or someone you see drinking too much.
  • Share the facts. Young people are not necessarily aware of how risky drinking can be, so share some of these important facts and statistics with them. If they would rather find out for themselves, share resources.
  • Ask specific questions. When you talk to your teen about drinking, don’t just talk, listen. Find out how they feel about drinking and what they might do in certain situations when alcohol is involved.
  • Be clear about your expectations. Most adolescents do respond to clear expectations set by parents. Don’t just share facts and talk about drinking. Make it very clear that you expect them to abstain or to only drink responsibly on occasion.
  • Talk about other things too. The closer relationship you have with your child, the more likely they are to listen to you about drinking. Talk about all kinds of things, not just the negative. Discuss their interests, favorite classes, and what they look forward to in college.
  • Check in regularly. Once your student is away on campus, keep checking in and having these conversations. Build the relationship before college, and they will be more likely to open up to you about any challenges, like pressure to drink.

Sending a child off to college can bring mixed emotions to parents. You have prepared them for independence, yet letting go is challenging. The temptation and pressure to drink is one of the challenges your child will have to face once at college. They should be just fine if you have gotten them ready for it.