The Off-to-College Talk Every Student Needs

Whether your first, middle or last child is college-bound this fall, it’s essential to make time for that all-important “talk” – the one that addresses tough topics and helps ensure your son or daughter makes healthy choices while away at school. Of course, the ideal time to have this chat (or series of chats) is before you drop them off at campus, but if you’ve already delivered them to school, it’s not too late to address any or all of these issues either by phone or over Labor Day weekend or Parents’ Weekend if you’ll see each other then.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2So what should you talk about? How should you start the conversations? And how can you get your kids to really listen? They are adults, after all, and able to do what they like. “Research shows that the number-one source where college kids get information is their parents,” says Robert Scholz, LPCC, LMFT, assistant director and coordinator of alcohol and other drug programs at Pepperdine University Counseling Center, in Malibu, California, and clinical director at Engage Psychological Services in Westlake Village, CA. Luckily, this generation is typically one with a close relationship to their parents, he continues: “It’s a little more of an emotionally close relationship and so they really do listen … they value and take into consideration what parents say.”

Starting the Conversation

There’s no one right way to begin. Some experts suggest making pre-college conversations casual. “The more organically and naturally these talks happen – maybe in the car or when you’re doing something else — the better,” says Victor Schwartz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University, and medical director of the Jed Foundation, a non-profit that promotes emotional health among college students.

Click here for more information about Dr. Turrisi and the Biobehavioral Health and Prevention Research Center at Penn State University.

Click here for more information about Dr. Turrisi and the Biobehavioral Health and Prevention Research Center at Penn State University.

On the other hand, Scholz advises parents to ask permission to have a conversation. He suggests saying, “I’d like to find a time to talk about some of the things you might be seeing in college. What would be a good time that we can talk a little bit about that?”

Yet another strategy is to follow the lead of the university. Most schools require students to take an online drug and alcohol education course prior to their freshman year. “Use this is a conversation starter,” says Scholz, and ask, “‘Have you done your alcohol education course? Can I take a look at it? Can we talk about it?’”

Whether these talks are scheduled or happen spontaneously (you’ll likely know what will work best for your son or daughter), it’s important to keep in mind that your young adult will likely already know a lot of the information you plan to discuss. Your child may have already experimented with these substances in high school, but for some, college brings greater temptation and pressure to drink and use illicit drugs – and much greater freedom to do so, says Paul Rinaldi, PhD, director of The Addiction Institute of New York at Mount Sinai Roosevelt and Mount Sinai St. Luke’s hospitals, in New York City.  “High school is a little more of a protected environment. You have to come home and face your parents. At college, you don’t. You have to face yourself and your professors.”

Above all, when talking to your kids, “be respectful; and don’t come at it from the standpoint that you have all of the answers,” Scholz notes. “Try starting with open-ended questions: What are your thoughts on what you might be seeing as it relates to alcohol and drug use? What are your expectations?’ The more you can get your child to talk and share what they know, the better.”

Checklist: What to Discuss About Campus Life

checklistWhat strategies will you use to stay safe while partying? While you don’t want to encourage alcohol or marijuana use, you do want to make sure your child has the right mindset and tools if they do decide to drink and/or experiment with drugs. “It’s really about trying to open up the conversation based on data and the facts without trying to be too personal with the kid,” says Dr. Rinaldi. Don’t ask, “’What’s your plan? Are you going to drink?’ They’re not going to answer that. It’s just going to make them defensive and closed-off. Just presume they are going to drink,” he says. And you’re “trying to mitigate any bad consequences and [help them] figure out how to make schoolwork a priority.” For specific tips on how to reduce harm when your child is at a dorm party, read Advice for Parties (below).

How and how often will we communicate when you’re at school? Given the many easy ways to communicate these days students and their parents are likely more in touch than ever before. However, according to Scholz, it’s the quality not quantity that counts when it comes to staying connected. “It’s hard to pick up whether your kid is depressed or anxious in a text message,” he says. “Hearing your kid’s voice speaks volumes,  … [so] especially in that first semester, it’s important to establish a schedule. Give your child options – whether talking on the phone or Skyping once a week or every other week – but set the expectation that you want to hear their voice at a frequent interval.”

Where will you go on campus if you need help? Parents should make sure their children know where resources are on campus. “Literally walk them to the different places like the health center, the counseling center, the wellness center … and go through the door,” says Scholz. If you are unable to physically visit these locations, sit together and find these resources on the school’s website. Adds Scholz: “Most universities go out of their way to promote those services [online] because they want students to get help sooner than later.”

What’s your plan for managing sleep and stress and eating right? College students are one of the most sleep-deprived populations there is, says the National Institutes of Health. And though food plans have vastly improved on college campuses, good nutrition can easily fall by the wayside with academic and social pressures. Add alcohol or other drugs into the mix and you’ve got an ideal formula for  illness and increasing the odds of a mental health issue, says Scholz. Talk to your kids about the basics – sleep, eating, exercise, the role of alcohol and how it impacts sleep and mood. It may seem obvious, but these healthy-living essentials can be tough to maintain for adolescents on their own for the first time.


This article is part of the series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.” To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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