substance use in college

Open Up a Conversation About Substance use with a College-Aged Loved One Using These Tips

While colleges are preparing to open up their doors and let students come to school, there is something magical in the air. There are possibilities to transform lives and find hope in hitting the books, eyes set on the future goals ahead. For some people in college, they are able to stay focused on these goals without deterrent. Others struggle for different reasons and may turn to substances to help them cope. Others simply go out with friends to have a good time. Before they realize it, they’ve had too much to drink and they are in a spot of trouble. Many parents wonder how to help their college student who is drinking or using drugs but is not sure how to begin the conversation. Here are some tips to open up the conversation and help a student find hope.  

Old Tropes Don’t Work

Telling a student, or child, not to do something is akin to telling them to go full throttle at it. Anybody raising toddlers, even teens, knows they are more willing to try things when someone says no than when they say ‘let’s talk about it.’ Programs like D.A.R.E were designed to help students get information about drug use and why they should be careful with substances. They are not proven to be as effective at stopping the behavior as many hoped. Just saying no does not stop a teen who is at a party from feeling they might be invited to try something that, at the moment, they feel pressured to use in front of friends. Those ‘in the moment’ circumstances take bravery and sometimes teens or college students just want to fit in at that moment and not be worried about what other people think. 

How to Engage Students

College students are learning responsibility, being on their own, and possibly away from family for the first time ever. Students in middle school may have tried or been exposed to substances already. When they are in their late teens to early 20s, they may already be using substances regularly, like alcohol, and not realize they have a substance abuse problem. Likewise, caregivers may not even realize they are using them frequently. The honest conversation opens the door to talking about the issues surrounding drug use and helps students find a way to explore their feelings and thoughts with parents without feeling judged.

Letting Go of Judgment

One of the most important aspects of reaching students who need help for addiction is releasing judgment. Don’t go into the conversation trying to judge who they are for using substances or what has happened since they began. Maybe grades have slipped, they failed a class, or even put their academic career and health at risk. Whatever the consequences, the student likely knows those are terrible, hard things, but more judgment heaped on their shame is not going to help them. Don’t laugh off behavior that is serious or harming themselves and others. Giving this message to them sends a signal they may approve in some way and therefore are not going to listen as much to parents telling them to quit.

Set the Precedent

Even if a child is not living at home, this does not mean they can do what they like. Don’t let college students who come home think they can drink and use drugs in the home. Even if they used it at college, that is not going to be okay at home. Parents who own the home still can set boundaries of what happens inside the house. If they are struggling with major consequences (legal, or academic) it may be time to sit them down and talk about what is going on, to see how they can get more help. 

Don’t Helicopter

Nothing is harder for college students than helicopter parents who ‘hover’ around their kids and don’t let them make big life choices for themselves. This can hinder development from the time they are little. They cannot decide to do their own thing and find their own path without turning to parents for approval or help. Over-controlling and over-protective parenting can create kids who are not able to deal with real-life situations that may be risky on their own. They need emotional tolerance to build so they can face life circumstances effectively when it is developmentally appropriate.

Be a Realist

Even when people don’t intend to start using drugs, they may begin by going to a party or just needing something ‘to take the edge off.’ They may be surprised as anyone to suddenly wake up and realize they are addicted to substances. This change can be subtle over time with the use of drugs changing the brain in different ways. Addiction happens to everyone. Nobody is immune to it. There is no blood test to determine how people cope. Addiction is a brain disease, even if it is complex. Understand and be educated on how addiction works before talking to them about the issues they face.

Seek Help

Parents want to give the kid the benefit of the doubt. They think if they let them go their own way, they are letting them make their own choices, with their own consequences, but don’t realize how far it can go. The challenge is to help them navigate this pathway of seeking help, then finding treatment that will support their unique challenges. First:

  • Sit them down to talk
  • Explain why there are concerns
  • Ask them if they are willing to seek help
  • Try interventions if possible
  • Always be prepared to listen openly 

The more family is involved and communicates with their loved one, the easier it can be. It will never be clear cut or simple. They may refuse to attend treatment. They have to be ready to go and be willing to get help. Until then, it may be a game of wait and see, but at least family can be there, waiting to embrace them with open arms when they finally make the choice to get help.

Casa Capri knows how hard it is to have daughters and loved women come to our facility for help. Their families want to do what’s best for them. We help them make that decision with our female-only programs and services. We know your kid’s needs and will help you get them the right support. Call Casa Capri today: 844-593-8020


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