Timing can be critical when it comes to talking with new college students about substance use.

“There’s a ton of research, specifically related to alcohol, that says having conversations before students even get to college actually decreases their risk for high-risk drinking behaviors,” said Ashley LeDuc, associate director with Hokie Wellness. “Their families’ beliefs, values, and norms are often the most influential factors in reducing students’ risk for developing drinking and other substance misuse problems.”

Hokie Wellness aims to foster a heathier Virginia Tech community by providing prevention services, education, and resources to students and employees. As a part of this mission, LeDuc and other members of Hokie Wellness’ Alcohol and Other Drugs team recently developed a family guide for having these important discussions.

“Having an open and honest conversation with students about substance use can be challenging or feel awkward, especially if this is your first time talking with them about these topics,” LeDuc said. “We wanted to create a guide that would help parents navigate these important discussions and encourage them to maintain an ongoing dialog throughout the year.”

Along with conversation tips, the guide includes information about state laws and campus policies, facts about the use of alcohol and other drugs among college students, and a variety of campus resources available to students. Alcohol is the guide’s primary focus, but it also includes information about cannabis, which is now legal in Virginia, but is prohibited on Virginia Tech's campuses per federal law.

The guide is just one example of the multiple and multi-faceted resources related to well-being at Virginia Tech. It also aligns with the university's mental health campaign, VT Better Together.

LeDuc said a good place to start a conversation that is both authentic and applicable is simply by acknowledging specifically alcohol’s often perceived role when it comes to socializing during the earliest weeks of the new school year.

“Acknowledging that a lot of first-year students chose to drink during those first couple weeks just because they’re trying to make friends is important,” LeDuc said. “Having a conversation about that and sharing ways that students can connect with others that don’t include alcohol can greatly help reduce the odds of students taking part in some of those high-risk drinking behaviors.”

Other tips LeDuc shared to help parents make the most of these important conversations include:

Reflect on your personal feelings about alcohol and drug use prior to the talk.

“As a parent or guardian, a zero-tolerance message – no alcohol is best, and certainly not excessive amounts – is highly advised. We recognize that everyone has different parenting styles and setting this type of expectation may or may not fall within that realm. However, your student needs to understand clearly where you stand on this topic as it can have a powerful impact on when, where, and how they choose to drink, if at all, in the future.”

Set a specific time to talk to help ensure everyone is ready and open to having the conversation.

“When it is time to have the conversation, create a judgment free space where your student can honestly share any questions or concerns they have about going to college and being exposed to the drinking culture on campus. Be prepared to ask open-ended questions to continue the conversation.”

Focus more on the most common consequences instead of just the most dramatic.

“While you can absolutely discuss the serious harms and consequences that can result from excessive drinking, it is actually more effective to mention the less severe outcomes, like doing something reckless or embarrassing. Focusing on what your student’s long-term goals are academically, socially, and financially, can also be a useful strategy when discussing the impacts of drinking. Research shows that students who engage in excessive drinking are more likely to have lower GPAs, have a lower likelihood of graduating, accept less prestigious jobs, and then end up with lower lifetime earnings.”

Avoid generalization statements such as, “everyone drinks in college,” and instead focus on facts related to substance use.

“Many students don’t understand or underestimate the impact alcohol has on their body, so it’s essential you help your student realize what is actually happening when they drink. It can help them more easily make the decision to abstain if they understand drinking doesn’t contribute to their goals, or at the very least, make safer decisions if they do choose to drink. Review our Alcohol Resources page before talking with your student to learn about blood alcohol concentration (BAC), impairment, factors that affect BAC, and more. This is also a great resource to share with your student.”

Make this conversation the start of an ongoing dialogue.

“We encourage conversations that naturally allow for your student to share their experiences and concerns around drinking. For example, instead of directly asking 'have you been drinking in your residence hall,' try asking 'how has your experience been living in the residence hall' or 'what do students on your hall do for fun,' to allow for a more organic transition to the topic of alcohol.”

As a part of this ongoing conversation, Hokie Wellness will be adding additional conversation tips and facts throughout the academic year. Those will focus on specific potential high-risk events such as, Tailgating, Halloween, and Spring Break.

More helpful resources

Substance-free environments for connecting with other Hokies:
Weeks of Welcome

Substance use:
Individual Consultations
Recovery Community

General well-being resources:

Hokie Wellness
Cook Counseling Center
Schiffert Health Center
Dean of Students Office  

Written by Travis Williams


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