Alcohol Use among Students: How Parents Can be Partners in Prevention

By Susan E. Bruce

On college campuses across the country, hazardous drinking and the negative consequences associated with it are a national concern. The University of Virginia takes seriously the problem of unhealthy and dangerous drinking among students. Although most UVa students consume alcohol in a lower-risk manner and do not experience serious alcohol-related problems, alcohol use is prevalent among, and accepted by, many students and contributes to a variety of negative outcomes. Ensuring the health and safety of students is a University-wide priority.

Susan Bruce
Director, UVa Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention

The University approaches alcohol education with multiple tactics, and data collected over the past decade indicate that our efforts are reducing negative consequences. The culture of student self-governance ensures that students are significantly engaged in program development, and we encourage students to stand up for their rights, especially when a peer’s use of alcohol has an effect on the living and learning environment.

Professional staff members follow up on situations as appropriate, ranging from student judicial action to developmental conversations and support for students needing treatment for substance dependence. Students are educated on the signs of alcohol overdose and are strongly urged to seek immediate medical attention when dangerous situations arise. Students living in on-Grounds housing are encouraged to report troubling or dangerous behavior to their resident advisers so that problems can be addressed in a timely and appropriate manner. To encourage students to seek immediate medical care, we remind them that Emergency Room staff do not notify police or UVa administrators when a student is seen for an alcohol-related incident.

Here are a few suggestions on how parents can continue to support students in making healthy choices:

  • Initiate conversations about alcohol choices and make your expectations clear. Your son or daughter probably won’t bring up the issue without some prompting. Parental expectations do have an impact on student drinking behaviors. Conversations that take place before Move-In Day have the greatest impact.
  • Know that most parents do have these conversations. A national study found that three-quarters of parents say they discussed family rules about alcohol use with their sons and daughters in the previous three months.
  • Avoid scare tactics. Be factual and straightforward about your family beliefs and your concern about the choices your daughter or son may be facing. Ninety percent of young adults say the way to reach them is to focus more on health and safety issues than on legal consequences.
  • Know that UVa students drink far less than you might think. When we give students accurate information about their peers’ actions, we increase healthy behaviors. A 2013 UVa study found that on a typical Saturday night, a majority of students (59 percent) either don’t drink (35 percent) or consume no more than three alcoholic beverages. Regrettably, many students believe that all UVa students drink heavily, and this misperception of what is “normal” can influence them to make higher-risk drinking choices. Students underestimate the prevalence of protective behaviors such as calling 911 when they encounter an unresponsive student and, as a result, may falsely believe that their peers are reluctant to intervene in dangerous situations. In reality, nearly all students (90 percent) tell us they believe it is their responsibility to intervene when they notice a problem situation.

Talk to your students about alcohol. Don’t assume they won’t be drinking. Tell them how to be safe: no or low consumption; no high-risk drinking; always have trustworthy, designated, non-drinking friends who will be responsible if your student is drinking.

Nancy and Steve Skancke
Parents of Matthew ’05 and Carolyn ’09
Great Falls, Virginia

The University has many programs in place to assist students who make unhealthy choices around alcohol or other drugs. These include one-on-one meetings with University administrators; online education programs offered by the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention; the Hoos in Recovery student support group; and free consultation regarding alcohol and drug abuse issues through Counseling and Psychological Services.

For more information about substance abuse education programs and support for students in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, contact Student Health’s Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention at 924.5276 or see

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