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

By Susan E. Bruce

The decisions college students make about alcohol use can have a powerful impact on their lives. UVA prevention programs are based on the belief that effective programs are science-based, comprehensive, and coordinated across the University. The culture of student self-governance ensures that students are significantly engaged in the decision-making process.

We work to prevent alcohol and other drug abuse through multiple tactics, including enforcement of state law and University policies, developmentally appropriate educational programs for students, intervention for students who experience consequences related to use of alcohol or other drugs, and partnership with parents, faculty, and the community.

The University has many programs in place to assist students who make unhealthy alcohol or other drugs choices. These include online education programs; the Hoos in Recovery student support group; and the evidence-based BASICS program. BASICS provides a confidential, nonjudgemental conversation about decreasing risks associated with alcohol, marijuana, and other drug use.

In each of our programs, we remind students that breaking the law by consuming alcohol under the age of 21 can result in legal consequences. This message alone, however, is not enough.  Our data show that nearly half of UVA students (47 percent) report drinking with the intention of getting drunk at least once before they enrolled at UVA for their first year.

Our combined efforts are making an impact. UVA students today are less likely to drink in excessive ways, more likely to use protective strategies to reduce their risk, and less likely to experience negative consequences of drinking.

We are acutely aware that use is prevalent among, and accepted by, some student sub-populations. We continually work to develop new initiatives to support the majority of students who engage in healthy choices around alcohol while challenging those who drink in a hazardous manner.

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 daughter or son probably won’t bring up the issue without some prompting. Parental expectations do have an impact on student drinking behaviors, both positively and negatively. Conversations that take place before Move-In Day have the greatest impact. The first weeks of college can set the tone for a student’s entire college career, so have a follow-up conversation (or two!) to check in.
  • 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 daughters and sons 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 2015 UVA study found that on a typical Friday night, a majority of students (60 percent) either don’t drink (38 percent) or consume no more than three alcoholic beverages. Regrettably, many students (and some parents) believe that all UVA students drink heavily, and this misperception of what is “normal” can influence 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.
  • Treat substance use disorders as you would any other health issue. Those with a family history of substance use disorders are four times more likely to develop a problem. Students need to be aware of any potential genetic risk so they can make more informed choices about alcohol use.

For more information about substance abuse prevention programs and support for students in recovery from substance use disorders, contact the Gordie Center.