How Parents Can Influence College Students’ Drinking

Group of college kids with sunglasses on

Selfies of drunken, wasted students are alarming to any parent preparing to send a budding adult off to college. But experts say that those images convey a false idea about many young people’s experiences — and that parents have far more influence over their children’s drinking habits than they might realize.

The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s program to combat college drinking said in a 2002 report that while binge and problem drinking have increased, overall drinking hasn’t. And the number of college students who don’t ever drink has also increased, from 15 percent to 19 percent.

Believe it or not, young people still seek the approval of their parents, says Brown University research fellow Shannon R. Kenney, PhD. She’s examined student alcohol use, particularly through research,” at Loyola Marymount University and now at the Brown University Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.

What “Pre-Drinking” Is and What It Can Do to Young People

Pre-drinking, or “pre-partying,” is simply consuming alcohol at home before going to a party or bar. In teens, it’s driven by either a lack of ability to drink legally at a public location or by a need to spend less on booze.

But it’s a particularly problematic manner of drinking, research has found. Pre-drinkers on average consume three more drinks per event than do drinkers who consume alcohol only at the pub, or only at home but not at the bar, according to the findings published in November 2012 in the journal Addiction: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The study found that the risk of at least one adverse outcome occurring on a night of pre-drinking was 23.8 percent, compared to 13.9 percent on nights of only on-premise drinking and 12 percent on nights of only off-premise drinking. Immediate risks from problem drinking include perilous driving, property damage and potentially lethal alcohol poisoning, but researchers have also observed long-term consequences, such as sporadic class attendance and lower grade point average.

Start Talking About Alcohol Early

It’s important for parents to act early. Specialists urge talking to your children as early as junior high school to convey the dangers, and your disapproval, of their drinking. And they urge parents or guardians to make it clear that, despite their perceptions of what their peers are doing, far fewer people their age drink —or drink as much — as they might assume.

As youths get older, parents should try interventions that involve skills to avoid alcohol — or, for some teens, to at least drink less — and to help students more safely navigate the social settings of college. Prevention efforts might include teaching students to slow the rate of drinking and not to pre-drink.

Research indicates that students who perceive their parents to be more disapproving of heavy drinking drink less than peers who perceive greater parental approval, Dr. Kenney said. “When parents communicate more permissive attitudes toward underage drinking, for example, parents who drink with adolescent children or allow children to drink in their home, children drink more frequently and heavily,” she said.

Talking Points for Parents

The ideal, of course, is that adults won’t drink until they’re 25 — the minimum age when the brain is considered fully developed — or that they at least drink moderately in the safety of their homes. But experts say it’s unrealistic to expect relatively new drinkers to stop altogether.

That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t warn against it and educate their teens about the perils, particularly of pre-drinking. The following information is important for parents and guardians to convey:

  • Pre-drinking will increase intoxication and risk for dangerous or regrettable, even humiliating, behavior.
  • Identifying a reliable, sober driver before the event can prevent property damage and legal consequences — and even save lives.
  • Pacing can reduce the speed at which blood alcohol content rises, and adding a glass of water between each alcoholic drink will do the same — plus help avoid hangovers and reduce the chances of alcohol poisoning.

And giving young people a correct picture of their peer behavior can help reduce drinking, experts say. The truth about young adults and drinking is this: Whatever they think people their age are drinking, the reality is almost always that fewer peers are imbibing

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