How to Talk to Your College Student About Drinking
Binge drinking almost killed Hanna Lottritz.
The 20-year-old University of Nevada student reportedly drank so much alcohol that the doctors thought she was brain dead.
But Lottritz was fortunate. She miraculously emerged from her coma 24 hours later and was able to share her story—as a wake-up call, replete with pictures from her ordeal, about the dangers of college drinking.
What happened to Lottritz is every parent’s worst nightmare. And parents of college-aged kids have good reason to worry: binge drinking is the norm on college campuses, studies show. Just two years ago, a whopping 60 percent of college students said they drank alcohol in the last month, according to a national survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The great majority of these same students (roughly two out of three) said they binge drank during that timeframe.
The good news is that parents can play a pivotal role in protecting their college-aged child from harmful underage drinking. Simply talking about the dangers of alcohol and alcohol abuse can go a long way to preventing what Lottritz experienced from happening to your child. Talking about these dangers more than once—reminding your college student about the risks of drinking—can be an even more effective alcohol prevention strategy, according to a study by the American Psychological Association.
Many parents may not know how to begin the conversation about college drinking, however. This article offers some helpful points of emphasis.
Physical Dangers of Binge Drinking
Your child needs to know about the dangers of binge drinking, regardless of how generally accepted or widespread the practice might be on their campus.
You don’t have to resort to scare tactics, either. An honest presentation of the severe, even life-threatening physical harm that binge drinking can cause will suffice.
A handy fact sheet from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines the dangers in greater detail. The reality is that every year, binge drinking among college students between the ages of 18 and 24 results in, roughly:
- 1,825 student deaths from alcohol-related injuries, including drunk driving motor vehicle accidents
- 696,000 physical assaults
- 97,000 sexual assaults or date rapes
Long-Term Alcohol Damage to the Developing Brain
Alcohol abuse during the teen and young adult years can also cause serious long-term damage to the developing brain. As it is, the brain is undergoing critical development until adolescence formally ends around the age of 25, but a now undisputed fact is that excessive alcohol use introduces long-lasting changes to the structure and function of the brain. Some of these changes may even be permanent.
A helpful info sheet from SAMHSA catalogues the damaging long-term impact of alcohol on these key regions of the brain:
- Alcohol impedes the brain’s processing of incoming sensory stimuli via the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher-level cognitive functioning.
- Alcohol also slows down the brain’s ability to organize a cognitive or physical response to incoming stimuli via the central nervous system.
- Long-term alcohol use can cause permanent changes to the frontal lobes, in turn disrupting a person’s impulse and temper control.
- When alcohol affects the hippocampus, the portion of the brain responsible for forming memories, a person may have short-term memory problems and may also struggle to learn and retain new information.
- The cerebellum, which governs coordination and awareness, can also experience alcohol damage, resulting in poor balance and hand tremors, for example.
- Excess alcohol even throws off the parts of the brain that control basic body functions—the hypothalamus and medulla—so that one’s heart rate and body temperature fall (sometimes dangerously so) while other impulses, like the urge to urinate, increase.
Alcohol Abuse Among College Students: Rates, Signs and Risk Factors
Inevitably, underage drinking also raises one’s risks of developing an alcohol use disorder—and as many as one in five college students meets the criteria for this diagnosis. You can talk to your child about these high rates of alcohol addiction among college students.
You may also want to familiarize your child with the Top 10 Signs of Addiction. That lets them know that alcohol use disorder is a real disease and that anyone, themselves included, can be susceptible to it. And they can exercise proactive responsibility by being on the watch for a potential drinking problem.
You can also inform your child about the various risk factors for alcoholism and alcohol use disorder, such as a family history of alcohol abuse or a co-occurring mental disorder like depression or anxiety.
Your child can further benefit from being prepared in advance for the social and academic stresses of a new college environment, which can make them more vulnerable to problem drinking. Even the excitement of the first few months of freshman year can be an indirect trigger of overdoing the alcohol. That’s when elation about being on one’s own in a stimulating new social environment can prompt some risky, potentially harmful behaviors like binge drinking.
Academic Problems from Binge Drinking
If your child has typically been studious and conscientious in school, you can also emphasize the verified link between binge drinking and academic problems—and how this link only grows stronger among those who binge drink more often. In a study published in the Journal of American College Health, one in four college students reportedly missed class, fell behind in school or got lower grades on exams and papers because of drinking.
Binge drinkers in particular—especially those who admitted to drinking three times a week or more—were six times more likely to perform poorly on a test or project and five times more likely to miss class, according to another study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Where to Go for Help with a Drinking Problem
Even before they leave for college, your child can benefit from knowing what to do if they ever do suspect they have a drinking problem. Let them know it’s never a sign of weakness to ask for help, and that you will always be a phone call away if they ever need to talk.
It’s also possible that your child will feel much more comfortable consulting with a mental health professional. Starting now, you can connect your child with on-campus resources that will be of help should they need it. Most college campuses have a counseling center where students can go for related therapy services. Consider calling and learning about the resources they offer before you talk with your child. A phone consultation with a trusted alcohol treatment facility can also provide key information about prevention, treatment and recovery options.
Thankfully, the fact that you are talking to your child now about the dangers of college drinking—and hopefully talking to them more than once—means their chances of eventually needing treatment for substance abuse will likely be lower.