Conversations Before College: Honest Talk about Alcohol

Conversations Before CollegeHonest Talk About Alcohol“3 Things to Teach Your Kids about Alcohol,” the most important thing I’ve ever written, was a plea to parents to talk with kids about alcohol and prevent the kind of tragedy that a family close to ours experienced in 2004. This is a topic that I will continue to revisit until we stop losing more than 1,800 college students a year to alcohol-related deaths. For this installment of “Conversations Before College,” I am again tackling the important topic of alcohol.

Look at any pictures from college, and “all” the fun looks like it centers around a red Solo cup or a beer bong. The alcohol-drenched American college party culture goes far back (think Animal House), and many parents of today’s animal housecollege students expect drinking to be a normal part of the university social experience. During the 1980s, when many of us went to college, rules and attitudes regarding alcohol were relaxed and beer flowed freely. From my own college days, I can vividly recall the deaths of two students in alcohol-related accidents – one from a drowning and one from a fall off a balcony at a party. The young man who drowned had been in my freshman dorm.

We’ve learned a lot in three decades, mostly from very tragic, alcohol-related accidents, which has necessitated greater regulation of drinking on college campuses. But despite today’s more stringent rules, the known dangers of overconsumption, and the illegality of underage drinking, heavy partying is still the norm for many college students. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about four out of five college students drink alcohol, many in excess of what their minds and bodies can tolerate. Rules don’t change behavior, especially with this age group.

binge drinking statisticsIf you had to guess, you would likely be correct in assuming that your child will drink alcohol in college, but an honest conversation may help prevent your child from becoming a heavy drinker or a tragic statistic. According to a few different sources, many—but not all—college students are not just sipping a few beers, but participating in dangerous binge drinking:

“About half of college students who drink also consume alcohol through binge drinking.” (

“Approximately two out of five college students are binge drinkers, according to the most recent Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. 51% of male students drink five or more drinks in a row. 40% of female students drink four or more drinks in a row.” (

Who You Are Matters MoreYour child doesn’t need to fall into those categories. They can make an informed decision now, before college, about alcohol. The decision about if and how much to drink in college is an important aspect of my previous “WHO you are matters more than WHERE you go” post.

For any conversation to be effective for our teenagers—who are pretty certain we adults have no idea what’s happening in the “real world”—we need to honestly and openly discuss with them the pros and the cons of their choices, not just tell them not to drink. In fact, anything that comes after “don’t” becomes even more tempting for teens and young adults who are stretching their identity separate from parents and trying to become more independent.

pascalThere is a counseling technique called Motivational Interviewing that you don’t need to become an expert in to understand and use. Motivational Interviewing is basically a way to help our kids think for themselves and make their own decisions. During high school and college, we will not be with our kids as they make decisions about when and how much to drink. They are going to make their own decisions. What we can do is talk with them and help them think through their options so that they can take ownership of their alcohol decision and be more likely to follow through with it.

We need to ask our kids:
“What are the positive aspects of drinking?”
“What are negative aspects of drinking?”

Our kids, either through personal experience or the experiences of their friends or family members, are able to articulate both the positive and negative aspects of drinking alcohol. Having a frank discussion with them before they’re far away could encourage them to make better, more informed choices about what kind of college drinker they will be before they get there. You might want to have this talk with a few parents and kids together, then set aside some time as a group to watch the movie Haze.

The Fun of Drinking Alcohol

The reason it’s so important to discuss the perceived positive aspects of drinking in college is because the good things are mostly what our kids have already seen or experienced. While attending parties, looking at friends’ photos, and seeing alcohol portrayed in media, drinking looks like a great thing to do. Our kids need to know about the “Magic Potion” myth of alcohol: “The media’s glamorous portrayal of alcohol encourages many teens to believe that drinking will make them ‘cool,’ popular, attractive, and happy.”

In our culture, for many kids and adults alike, alcohol is associated with fun, happiness, letting loose, relaxing, a good social life, and “partying.” And, for many college students, “Drinking at college has become a ritual that students often see as an integral part of their higher education experience.” (

Our kids, no matter how many other healthy interests and involvements they have in college, will definitely be exposed to a lot of alcohol (and other drugs). On a typical review, one student wrote (about his school’s alcohol and drug scene), “It’s the typical party scene: a lot of drunk students, a lot of one night stands.”

We need to talk with our kids about the positive aspects of being a college drinker, because they have already been exposed to a lot of evidence that encourages them to drink.

The Marketing & Costs of Alcohol

A discussion about the marketing and costs of alcohol is necessary, and the earlier you start the conversation, the better. For parents with younger kids in late elementary school or junior high, it’s not too early to talk about alcohol. Some kids have already started experimenting with alcohol at a very young age. And if they haven’t tried alcohol, they’ve seen copious beer commercials while watching sports and other programs. That’s not a mistake by the alcohol industry. They know that “college students spend 5.5 billion on alcohol, mostly beer. That’s more than they spend on books, soda, coffee, juice, and milk combined.” (

Our kids are being targeted as consumers long before they are legally of age to buy or consume alcohol. I think our kids need to know this. If you haven’t had the conversation, and your kid is headed to college, start talking now. Also, discuss the financial costs of alcohol with them and let them know any funds you are providing for their college education do not include “beer money.” For our oldest daughter, who studied abroad as a junior and was therefore “legal” to drink in Europe before being legal in the US, we told her that any pub trips were from her own funds, not funds we provided.

The Reality of College Alcohol Use

When you get past the many perceived positives of drinking alcohol, ask your children what they think are some of its negative aspects. I’m guessing they will come up with many of these on their own, but your discussion can be enhanced by sharing some facts and resources:

Death: 1,825 students ages 18-24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries or alcohol poisoning every year.

“Underage drinking is a major factor in nearly all the leading causes of death and injury for youth ages 5-25: automobile crashes, homicide, suicide, injury, and HIV infection.” (

Learn the story of one of these students, Gordie Bailey—beloved by his family and lost to them during his first month of college—in the movie Haze. Although his death happened 12 years ago, his entire family feels his painful loss to this day. Behind each of those 1,825 students are countless family members bereft by a tragic and senseless death. The movie Haze speaks to the impact on family and friends and provides a powerful, emotional message that resonates with young people.

Assault: 690,000 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking. (

Sexual Abuse: 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape every year, and alcohol is involved in 90% of campus rapes (Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse). 73% of assailants and 55% of victims report using alcohol and/or other drugs prior to the sexual assault. Female college freshmen, during their first three months of college, are most vulnerable to sexual assault. Because I have a daughter heading to college this fall, and I do not want her or her friends to be part of this horrendous statistic, this topic is going to be covered thoroughly in my next “Conversations Before College” post.

Injury: 599,000 students get unintentional injuries due to alcohol use. (

Academic Problems: 25% of students report negative academic consequences from drinking alcohol, including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams/papers, and receiving lower grades overall. Discuss your expectations regarding your child’s behavior and grades and what the consequences will be if they decide to party their way through college and not attend to the academics. College tuition is a high price tag to pay for your child to spend four years drinking and not studying.

Health Problems/Suicide Attempts: 150,000 students develop alcohol-related health problems each year and 1.2-1.5% of students indicate they tried to commit suicide in the past year due to drinking or drug use.

Alcohol abuse/dependence: Do you have a history of alcoholism in your family? Talk about it with your student. If they know the person, they’ve probably seen the impact alcohol has had. Also let them know that 31% of college students meet the criteria of alcohol abuse and 6% for alcohol dependence (, so alcoholism is a problem in college even though it’s not perceived to be by many.

Those are a lot of statistics. And I wouldn’t throw them all out at once. Instead, let your child share what they’ve experienced or witnessed themselves, or what they know to be the negative impacts of alcohol, and let them know how much you love them and how devastated you would be if they became one of those statistics. Personal stories of loved ones who’ve suffered from alcohol-related issues are more powerful than statistics.

Let them know that you care about them and want them to have a positive experience in college while also staying healthy and safe.


Going to college is the point when young adults start making decisions about all aspects of their day-to-day lives. They have complete freedom.

Like all decisions in life, the choice of whether to drink, and how much, is best made BEFORE being at that first party. Failing to decide ahead of time what kind of college drinker they’re going to be most likely means they’ll get swept into “what everyone else is doing,” which is, unfortunately, often binge drinking. Unless one consciously decides to go against convention, moderate to heavy drinking may become the norm.

Review the choices your college student has:

• Not to drink at all (there are some great “college without drinking” resources I’ve found – see below).

• Drink only when legal (for example, when overseas in a country with a lower drinking age or after turning 21).

• Drink moderately, fewer than four or five drinks at a time (what the significant majority of college students do, according to a Villanova study).

• Drink heavily, binge drinker (five or more drinks in a row for men, four or more drinks in a row for women in about two hours).

Deciding whether or not to be involved in Greek life (if their university has one) also impacts how big a focus alcohol may be during college. (

Talk about Strategies

There are many techniques college kids have found to participate in parties without binge drinking:

• Put something else in your red cup
• Set a limit and stick to it
• Don’t drink anything unless it’s in the original container that you opened yourself
• Eat food
• Stay with friends

Important to note here is that final bullet point, staying with friends. Doing so at college parties where there’s heavy drinking can protect students from going overboard when they’ve agreed beforehand to watch out for one another. This is especially crucial for college-aged young women, who become especially vulnerable to one of the tragic consequences of binge drinking: sexual assault. That’s the topic of my next “Conversations Before College” post.

Please have an honest talk with your kids about alcohol before they leave for college.

Alcohol Resources/Related:

Gordie’s Call (HAZE the movie)
Deadly Persuasion: 7 Myths Alcohol Advertisers Want you to Believe and Discussion Guide
College Fact Sheet
Alcohol and Health
How Much do College Students Really Drink (Washington Post)
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

College without drinking:

Ways to Survive a Party without Drinking
Avoid Alcohol While at College
I didn’t drink in College
13 Ways to Survive a Party without Drinking (Buzzfeed)
5 Ways to Enjoy Yourself at Parties without Sipping on Alcohol
I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy college without alcohol until I went to grad school on a dry campus
50 Fun Things to do Without Alcohol


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