College is a turning point in the relationship between you, as a parent or guardian, and your son or daughter. By living on their own — many for the first time — freshmen will have additional freedom, responsibility, and control over their own decisions.
However, many young adults have yet to develop personal values or limits regarding alcohol use.
The easy availability of alcohol and its excessive use are issues that college campuses are struggling with every day. UW–Madison is deeply concerned about the negative consequences of high-risk drinking, for the drinker and also for friends, roommates, and classmates. Local research shows that these consequences can include disrupted sleep or studies; unplanned and unprotected sexual contact; sexual or physical violence; vandalism; or nights that end at the detoxification center.
The university believes that you, as a parent, can be an essential partner in efforts to address this situation. Although your student is now in college, we know that you can continue to play a positive and influential role. Conversations about important topics such as alcohol use can have a lasting impact. We encourage you to talk openly and honestly about alcohol use before your student arrives on campus.
Ideas to discuss together are included below. They were prepared by staff members of the PACE Project at UW-Madison, which was a coalition to reduce the consequences of high-risk drinking, and the Offices of the Dean of Students. Additional content was provided by the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.
Guidelines and tips for parents:
- Be aware that it really could be your child who is making unwise decisions about alcohol. We know from experience that parents are often surprised and shocked to learn that their child has gotten into trouble because of excessive drinking. We also know that this doesn’t mean you are an ineffective or uncaring parent. This period of transition to adulthood and independence presents difficult new choices to students, and they don’t always make good decisions.
- Share information about your own experiences with alcohol as a young adult. Did you choose to drink? Why or why not? Did you experience any negative consequences related to your alcohol use?
- Avoid tales of drinking exploits from your own college years. Laughing about the “good old days” appears to give your stamp of approval to irresponsible behavior. Today’s college students do not drink for the same reasons that students drank 25 years ago. Today, twice as many students drink with the intention of getting drunk, compared to 1980.
- Be a role model. It’s important for students to see the adults that they respect enjoying themselves at events without alcohol, and drinking sensibly when alcohol is present.
- Express your expectations and values clearly and directly. Rather than telling your student that you hope he or she “makes smart decisions,” be specific. If you don’t want your student to consume alcohol as an underage adult, say so. Also, talk specifically about your values regarding illicit drug use.
- Explain that while you continue to care about your child’s welfare, you are no longer in a position to protect against potentially harmful consequences of personal choices. Excessive drinking presents serious health risks, from both the chemical effects of alcohol and the accidental harm that can come to students when they are intoxicated. Underage drinking is against the law in Wisconsin and can carry significant legal, academic, and financial consequences. Help them understand the magnitude of these risks.
- If your student chooses to drink, focus on strategies for low-risk alcohol consumption. Vague messages about “being a responsible drinker” lack clear direction about how to moderate their drinking. Discuss specific behavioral limits that you expect your son or daughter to follow, such as no more than three drinks in one night, using a designated driver, and avoiding sexual activity while under the influence.
- Mention these other strategies for low-risk consumption: eat a meal before drinking, consume no more than one drink per hour, always know what is in a drink, alternate nonalcoholic drinks throughout the evening, and plan in advance how to get home safely.
- Talk about the importance of friendship and individuality. Remember that young adults truly want to be accepted by their peers and perceived as “normal.” Have a frank discussion about what it means to live with integrity according to one’s values. Talk about the true meaning of friendship, and share an example of a time when you have confronted a close friend about their unhealthy or problematic behavior.
- Set clear and realistic expectations regarding academic performance. When students do not succeed at UW–Madison, alcohol is often a major factor. Some students may be less likely to abuse alcohol if they are aware of their parents’ expectations of academic performance. Others may turn to intense partying as a response to the stress caused by the pressure to excel. A balanced set of academic goals that is reasonable for your student may help them maintain a healthy campus life.
- Encourage your student to explore all the social options on campus. Plenty of campus activities do not include alcohol, including recreational sports, volunteer groups, student government, and special-interest clubs (see list of links above). The Wisconsin Union also coordinates a wide range of late-night activities that many students enjoy instead of visiting campus-area bars or house parties. By exploring these options, students may meet others who share interests that don’t involve drinking.
UW Parent Program Newsletter
- Parents: Partners in Changing the Drinking Culture, February 2010
- Time to Talk, Summer 2008
- Alternatives to Drinking, Winter 2007
Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention [The Parent Connection]