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Talking to Your College-Bound Teen About Drugs

As you send your son or daughter off to college, you’ve probably had conversations about topics such as classes, supplies and choosing a major. But if you haven’t talked to them about drugs, you might be missing an important opportunity. Research shows that children whose parents talk to them about substance abuse are less likely to use drugs and alcohol. But how do you start that conversation?

“Talking to college-age kids about avoiding drugs is tricky because drinking, marijuana and other drugs are pretty much a fact of life at many, if not most, colleges,” said Brian Coughlin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the young adult programs at Promises Treatment Centers. “So you can point out that drugs aren’t legal, but it’s probably more effective to have an honest conversation about consequences. Driving drunk, sexual assault and overdoses are serious and potentially life-altering events.”

If you have a relationship of trust with your child, you’re one step ahead. “Ideally, the parent and child have had some ongoing conversations about drugs,” Dr. Coughlin said. “But the child is now entering a new environment where they’re in control of their own decisions. So as a parent, you want to convey that your child can talk openly to you about drug use and that they can come to you to talk through difficult situations, without judgment or censure.”

If your child is going to be living with you, Dr. Coughlin’s advice is different. “If your college-age son or daughter is going to be living in the house, I advise parents to set very clear boundaries,” he said. “Let your child know exactly what’s expected and hold those lines.”

Set the Stage

It’s important to prepare for this conversion. Be clear on the points you want to make. Choose a calm moment and have the conversation in a quiet place with no distractions. Be casual, friendly and non-confrontational. Frame this as an adult conversation.

Listen to what your child has to say. Welcome their comments, even if those comments aren’t what you want to hear. The point is to have an open, thoughtful dialogue. A discussion is much more likely to be internalized than a lecture, which is easy to dismiss, then forget.

Finding the right words and presenting them in a way that’ll be heard can be daunting. Here are five conversation starters that might improve your chances of having a productive conversation with your son or daughter. Of course, every child is different, and you’ll likely have to modify the language based on your child’s life experience and his or her existing viewpoint:

  • Be aware. In college you’re going to have a million things thrown at you very quickly. You’ll have new classes, new friends, new everything. You’re also very likely to be exposed to drugs at every turn. Have you given any thought to this? Have you thought about what role drugs will have in your new life?
  • Know yourself. Drug use is usually a sign that something’s wrong in one’s life. Stress, depression, even boredom can be an incentive to use drugs. Have you thought about what you can do to combat stress or depression? Is everything OK?
  • Think of your future. I’m worried about drug use because drugs, probably more than anything, have the power to derail your future. Everyone’s different, and some college kids can use drugs without serious consequences. But not everyone is so lucky, and if you’re prone to addiction, things can go badly very quickly.
  • Assess your environment. Certain situations, such as parties, concerts, sporting events or dating situations, often present opportunities to use drugs. Have you thought about what to do if you’re in a social situation where others are using drugs? What would be your response? What would you say?
  • Be prepared. The pressure to use drugs is really about the pressure to fit in. College has a way of making it clear who’s a leader and who’s a follower. If you’re firm on your goals and who you are, other students will respect that, and saying no will be easier. If you’re firm in your language, you’ll come across as a leader instead of a follower. Simply saying, “Thanks, but I need to steer clear” suggests that you understand what you’re turning down and have made a mature, reasoned decision.

Start Early

Ideally, the time to start talking to your son or daughter about drugs is long before they go off to college, said Dr. Coughlin. In his practice, Dr. Coughlin sees many young adults who started using at age 15 or 16, but the parents were so concerned about the teen using drugs on the street that they allowed it in the home.

“I've seen too many parents compromise their boundaries with their teenagers only to find that, years later, their teenager has turned into an adult with a severe drug problem who's still living at home and lacks the skills to launch into an independent life,” Dr. Coughlin said.


By Janet Cromley

Follow Janet on Twitter at @janetcromley

Posted on August 25th, 2015
Posted in Young Adults

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