There are lot of things to worry about when you send your kid off to college for the first time. How to keep them safe when you’re not entirely sure what they’re doing is a top concern for most parents and guardians.
We’ve got the info you need to know about what’s going on now, and how you can prepare your student to make wise decisions on their own.
What's different now?
Unfortunately, hazing, drinking too much, abusing drugs, and generally making poor decisions are time-honored, if unpleasant, college traditions. If you went to college (or were just young once) chances are you have some first-hand experience. Today, educators, families, and students are more aware of the problem and its impact, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. It’s safe to assume that at least once in their college career, your kid will be faced with a tough decision, egged on by peer pressure.
And this year, experts say the problem may get worse before it improves. One of the few upsides of the pandemic is that in 2020, not a single hazing death was reported in the U.S. — because so many students weren’t on campus. But by May of this year, there had already been two reported hazing-related deaths.
There are two factors that make the upcoming school year riskier: First, students who have missed out on most socializing for the past year may subconsciously make up for lost time, or address their anxiety about returning to school, by partying extra hard. And more liquor rarely leads to smarter decision-making.
The other factor is that students have gone close to a year largely without being on campus. (One expert likens it to having two years’ worth of freshmen on campus since most sophomores started college remotely.) That means they also haven’t seen their peers impacted by overimbibing or using drugs. Kids, for better or worse, use each other as guides. Not having seen the downside of others’ use of drugs and alcohol may create a mental disconnect about the dangers they pose.
Be realistic about the risk
The good news: The vast majority of people get through college without any significant trauma from overdoing the fun or any abusive behavior. For most, it’s an unpleasant scene in a chapter of their lives, just like sloppy roommates and their first serious heartbreak. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to minimize the likelihood of your student having a negative experience or facing physical harm.
That takes good communication. But keep in mind, your student is 18 (or close to it) — legally an adult and a fully formed person with their own ideas about life. To some degree, you have to rely on the good values and common sense they’ve already developed.
What you can do now is take steps to make sure they’re informed about the risks and know how to get support.
See also: The Introvert's Guide to Dorm Living
How to talk about hazing, drugs, and alcohol
It’s not uncommon for parents to want to give a lecture about what their kids are and aren’t allowed to do. Unfortunately, this tactic will never be effective. It often shuts down the discussion, which is the last thing you want. Besides, unless you plan to spy on your kid, they’re going to do what they want to. And that’s Ok! This is how they learn to be adults.
What’s more effective is talking to them factually about the risks, asking what they think, and encouraging them to consider when and how to remove themselves from a situation. Here are some tips on how that conversation should go:
- Wait for a time when you’re both calm and not engaged in something else. This is not a conversation to have when you’re stressed out and trying to pack or make dinner.
- Ask open-ended questions. You want to find out what they think about hazing, partying, and peer pressure. (Or if they’ve given it any serious thought at all.)
- Discuss red flags of hazing-prone situations. The vast majority of students don’t recognize hazing when it’s happening because it’s tied to an identity or group they want to belong to. (“My friends wouldn’t do anything to hurt me!”) Nor do most students understand there are laws against hazing. Making sure they understand the signs and the risks can go a long way to helping them steer clear of bad situations.
- Share stories of students who have been seriously hurt or injured during hazing or parties. (If they’re people you or they know, so much the better.) Remind them, when faced with a choice, to consider their personal values and act accordingly.
- Remind them they’re empowered to intervene if they see someone else being hazed or pressured into doing something they don’t want to. Having just one “bystander” speak up can make a huge difference. Something as simple as showing solidarity with the person being targeted or calling an ambulance if someone has been injured can change the dynamic of a situation for the better.
You may not know if your student has already experimented with drugs and alcohol, but you can’t afford to assume they know how to handle them responsibly. Teens and young adults feel immortal and even “good” kids underestimate the risks.
What is 'too much?'
It’s worth talking to them — in a non-lecturing way — about the reality of drug and alcohol use while also letting your student know what your expectations are for their behavior. First, make sure they understand what alcohol abuse is.
Binge drinking is defined as any drinking that raises your blood alcohol level to 0.08 g/dL (the legal limit in many states). In practice, that means about four drinks for women and five for men over the course of about two hours. (A “drink” in this case, means about 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or just 1.5 ounces of liquor.) So the student who thinks they aren’t abusing alcohol because they only drink two nights a week or “only” down one giant mug of mostly vodka may well be a frequent binge drinker and not even know it.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has a great fact sheet on alcohol use among college-aged adults. It found that each year, among college students aged 18-24 approximately:
- 1,825 die from unintentional injuries related to alcohol including car crashes
- 696,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking
- 97,000 report an alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape
You should also make sure your kid understands the signs of alcohol poisoning or drug overdose and what to do if they or someone they know is experiencing a medical issue. Most important, set the right tone now, so if your kid does end up in trouble they know they can come to you for help or support — without judgment. (You’re allowed to be upset, even as you’re supportive. You’re still human.) If they know they can come to you even at a low point, you’ll be in a better position to help them — and it’s an important sign of a strong relationship.
Watch for red flags
Despite your best efforts, it’s still possible your student could end up a victim of hazing or consistently overdoing it on the party circuit. Especially during their first year on campus or if they’ve made a big change in their social life, look for the following warning signs:
- Sudden change in their behavior or amount/type of communication with you
- Reluctance to share information about their activities or friendships
- Significant changes in their moods and eating or sleeping habits
- Drop in their academic performance
If you notice these signs, it indicates your student is struggling with something — it could be hazing, alcohol abuse, or even mental illness. In any case, you want to let them know you’re concerned, you care, and you want to help. You can also contact the college for resources if you’re concerned. Depending on the school, contact a student counseling center or the medical center.
It’s natural to worry when your kid flies out of the nest and off on their own. Trust that the skills and values they’ve developed over the years will keep them safe. But also keep the lines of communication open. There will be times when they need someone honest and supportive to lean on or ask for advice.
Chances are, you have a lot more you want to share with your student before they head off to school — but those conversations don’t always come easy. We have some thoughts on how to ease the pressure.