Guest Opinion: Tips for parents talking to college-age students about drugs

  • by Michael Leach
  • Wednesday August 17, 2022
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As students head back to college, it's important that parents talk with them about drug use, including fentanyl, which can be lethal even in small amounts. Photo: Courtesy National Institute on Drug Abuse
As students head back to college, it's important that parents talk with them about drug use, including fentanyl, which can be lethal even in small amounts. Photo: Courtesy National Institute on Drug Abuse

Beginning college or university means taking on more responsibility, making adult choices, and facing the consequences of some of these decisions.

Speaking to college-age students about drugs and alcohol helps them stay informed about the risks and understand the consequences. Substance use and addiction is a significant problem in the Bay Area. Yet early prevention and education, especially for LGBTQ youth and young adults, prevent adult substance use disorders.

Here are some tips for parents living in the Bay Area to help speak to their kids about drugs and alcohol.

Ask questions, listen, and avoid long lectures

When children become adults, we want to impart wisdom to them, but this can often turn into long-winded lectures. The topic of drugs and alcohol is not easy to discuss, yet critical to address again, especially at this age.

Ask questions about what they know about drugs or alcohol at this age and if they have any concerns. Social media, for example, has a significant influence on young people and often fashionably depicts drugs and alcohol.

Listen to their concerns about alcohol and drugs; be an active listener. They may have heard of fentanyl, for example, and how it is found in cocaine, cannabis, methamphetamine, or made to look like prescription pain medication. Fill in the gaps with factual information about drug and alcohol use in college and its dangers.

Overdose deaths, for example, in the region have significantly risen since 2019, with much of the problem due to fentanyl.

Finally, avoid lecturing them, but rather voice a loving concern for their well-being because this is what this whole conversation is all about.

Avoid casting judgment, yet know parents can influence decision making

It is easy to cast judgment when talking about drug and alcohol use, which is why discussing personal stories is critical. Provide real-life examples of personal experiences and share the result of those experiences.

The goal for any parent is to influence responsible decision-making and not cast judgment over choices already made.

The LGBTQ community, for example, and those attending college who have not yet come out, are significantly impacted by individuals casting judgment and have nowhere to turn. According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ teens are 40% less likely to have an adult in their family whom they can turn to.

Roughly three-quarters of teens in the United States have already tried alcohol, and nearly half have used marijuana. Almost one-quarter of teens have abused prescription drugs. Members of the LGBTQ community cope with stigma, rejection, and harassment, making it more likely to never ask about drug or alcohol abuse.

Set clear rules and boundaries

Parents can still set boundaries despite most college-age adults not living at home, especially if parents are paying for college, car insurance, bills, rent, or groceries. Young adults begin to learn about consequences, and parents should be clear about their rules surrounding drug and alcohol use.

"Underage drinking is a significant problem and leads to illegal drug use, especially among college-age adults," noted Marcel Gemme of ( "It has been our experience that young people have a better chance at making responsible decisions when family units can establish clear boundaries and rules with prevention and education."

It is OK to establish boundaries and rules, just as it is OK not to like some of your child's decisions. What is important is being there for them, supporting them, listening, and guiding them along the way.

Find every opportunity for real conversation

The best way to help your child avoid drugs or alcohol when going to college or university is to maintain effective two-way communication.

While this is not always easy to accomplish, young people must have a stable individual they can turn to when questions arise about consuming alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription drugs.

Additionally, it is the responsibility of parents to initiate the conversation and make it a comfortable conversation that can be had at any time. Every step taken now prevents future problems from occurring or helps them make responsible choices.

If an opportunity to discuss drugs and alcohol does not present itself, create one, and keep that conversation going through their academic career.

Michael Leach, a proud supporter of the LGBTQ community, has spent most of his career as a health care professional specializing in substance use disorder and addiction recovery. He is a regular contributor to the health care website and a certified clinical medical assistant.

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