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For Parents: Preparing Your Child for the Social Aspects of College

By — National Association for College Admission Counseling
Updated on Feb 17, 2011

Your son or daughter is about to be one of the 15 million students going off to college this year. They have spent months planning for this big day, survived months of preparation for the SAT or ACT, written college applications, and sorted through the piles of colorful brochures from colleges touting their school over all others.

As parents, you do your best to support your child through the process and help them make sense of the myriad of choices available to them. Deciding which college to go to may be one of the biggest choices your child has made at this point in their lives. Before the first day of school they will have to choose where to live and what classes to take, just to name a few. Once their postsecondary education is underway, they will face an array of options, ranging from academic to social.

Like most parents, you probably have mixed feelings about your child going to college. While you're proud to see them pursuing higher education, you know you'll miss them. You know you've done a good job getting them to this point and feel pretty confident that they're prepared for this next phase of their lives. But how many of today's college-bound students are really prepared for the alcohol and other drug challenges they'll face when they enter college?

From their first day on campus, and even from their first visit to college, your child will probably face decisions that involve alcohol or other drugs. According to recent statistics, more than half of college freshman find themselves in a situation of high-risk drinking within their first week of college. In fact, over 159,000 of today's first-year college students leave school every year for alcohol or other drug related reasons.

What can you as a parent do to help them be better prepared?

As a parent, you can do a lot to help your child be better prepared for the social aspects they will face in college. As you know, drinking under age is illegal, but the facts are that many older adolescents are already experimenting with drinking and drugs. Recent studies show that over 50 percent of high school students report drinking alcohol in the past month. The incidence of high- risk drinking only increases in college, when your child finds him/herself with a new sense of freedom away from the watchful eyes of his/her parents.

Communicate

  • Identify your expectations for your child about drinking. Make sure your expectations are reasonable, well thought out, and convey trust and support. Communicate those expectations before they pack their bags and leave the nest.
  • Use "teachable moments" to have open and honest conversations with your child. (Watching a college football or basketball game, packing to leave, shopping for new clothes, or timely news events about drinking in college, etc.)
  • Ask your child about his/her expectations and correct those that seem inflated. Many students will come to college with false pretenses, having heard stories from older brother and sisters about all the drinking and partying that takes place in college. While many students do drink, there are many others who don't. It's helpful if you have done some research up front to be able to provide them with a list of activities on campus that don't involve alcohol.
  • Keep the lines of communication open--now and while your child is in college. Make yourself available to them if they need to talk. They may have questions about what college will be like and may be nervous about making friends. Try to answer their questions openly and honestly. Once your child is in college, keep an open mind and remain calm, even if they tell you things that may shock you. If you express anger or judgment over their behavior, they may not feel comfortable sharing with you in the future. By putting your emotions aside and listening, you may learn a lot that will better prepare you to guide them toward healthier decisions in the future. However, pay special attention if you hear descriptions of a pattern of heavy drinking that may need intervention. Let your child know that they can always talk to you if they're worried that their drinking is a problem. They need to know that even though you might be disappointed, you will support them in getting treatment.
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