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Countdown to College Part 2-Alcohol and Drugs

In There's a Stranger in My House by Dr James Wellborn

Once you have set expectations for the summer in the run up to college, there are a number of conversations that are worth having with your newly young adult child.  The percentage of college age people who binge drink alcohol (5 or more drinks in one setting) in the previous month is 41%.  Thirty eight percent rode with a driver who had been drinking.  Twenty seven percent drank and drove in the previous month.  Seventeen percent smoked marijuana in the previous month.

Guess who has the most influence on kid’s decisions to drink or use drugs?   Parents.  But you have to get in there to influence their awareness and decision making.  Here are some questions you can ask your teen to get that conversation started.  It will also provide an opportunity for you to revisit your expectations regarding alcohol or drug use.

How much alcohol does it take to raise your blood alcohol content past the legal limit?

In order to drink responsibly, your kid will need to know how alcohol affects them.  Start by requiring them to know how much each “drink” (1/2 oz liquor or 1 beer) affects them across time.  You can play a fun game where your kid tries to predict their BAC (blood alcohol content) after different amounts of alcohol across different amounts of time!  Won’t that be fun!  Here’s a site that has a calculator.  As a rule, the liver can process about an ounce of alcohol an hour (hence the ability to predict, fairly accurately, your blood alcohol content depending on gender, body weight, amount of alcohol, and time passed).  It can be useful to show your daughter how differently alcohol affects women compared to men.  If they try to keep up, they will be in serious trouble.

What’s the legal limit for alcohol intoxication?  Drug intoxication?

The goal of asking some of these questions is to make a point (in addition to any knowledge gained).  The answer to this question is “any amount of alcohol” if you are under the age of 21.  The presence of alcohol in any concentration or possession of alcohol is against the law.  At 21, Tennessee law defines legal intoxication as .08 BAC or higher.  Any of the recreational drugs your kid might use will almost certainly be illegal in any amount.  Possession is a crime; for some substances, a federal crime.  Even marijuana still in most states.

How much alcohol does it take for people to start dying from alcohol poisoning?

Death begins to occur when someone’s blood alcohol content approaches or exceeds .30.  Make them calculate how much alcohol it would take for them to reach that level.  An argument presented by some kids is that they can still be perfectly fine at that BAC level or higher.  On the one hand, this kind of direct and honest communication is a good sign of trust in your relationship.  On the other hand, this means that your kid has a natural tolerance (e.g., biological factors), has a body that doesn’t signal when they have consumed a lethal amount of alcohol and so are at risk of dying without realizing it, or they have been drinking so much that their body has developed a tolerance for high volumes of alcohol.  None of these are good news.  This may be a time to consult for strategies to deal with your kid’s alcohol abuse or addiction.

If you decide to drink, what’s your personal limit?

It is very important for kids to have thought about when to stop drinking once they start BEFORE they start.  This question is about what they are looking to get from drinking (and how they may need to set limits to avoid bad outcomes).  They should establish personal limits on an upper limit of alcohol at any one time, how frequently they drink, and when they will never use (e.g., when driving, major exams, unfamiliar hangouts, etc.).

What drugs (or alcohol, for that matter) are completely off limits and will result in a campus visit by us pulling a trailer to pack your things to bring you home for rehab?

It is always a good idea to make your expectations clear.  In this area, the threat of punishment and the disruption of their college experience can be a powerful inducement for them to regulate their risky behavior.  This is to open up a discussion on the range of drugs that may be available to your kid.

What do you think we will do if we get a phone call from anyone (campus police, local police, the Feds, concerned friends, bitter enemies, etc.) that there has been drinking, drug use, rudeness, etc.?

It’s like a cry for help: “Please mommy and daddy, I want to live at home and go to school around here.  I miss those evenings where we all watched Dancing with the Stars as a family and I had a curfew.”  Next.

What are the primary signs of an out of control party and what is your exit strategy?

The prevalence of binge drinking on college campuses means that parties or gatherings are going to get out of control.  Researchers have found that people end up being antisocial, assaultive or destructive when small, everyday social norms are ignored by the people around them.  An out of control party can be like the beginning of a forest fire during a drought; it starts out slow on the other side of the hill then suddenly you are surrounded by fire.  Some of the signs of impending trouble include wide spread serious drunkenness or drug intoxication, people beginning to vomit or relieve themselves in public, casual public sexual activity especially with nudity, open use of serious drugs (e.g., cocaine, prescription pills, etc.), property destruction, fights breaking out, and observing multiple instances of personal boundary violations (e.g., guys cornering girls, threatening or intimidating statements being thrown around, etc.).  Things will end up badly even in the rarefied clime of a college campus.  Talk to your kid about how they plan on protecting themselves in these situations.  (Also check out Countdown to College 3: Personal Safety.)

How do you know when your alcohol or drug use is a problem?

You kid needs to have already identified the criteria for an alcohol or drug use problem before it happens.  Here are some of the symptoms that treatment professionals use to identify the presence of substance abuse or addiction.

  • Do you drink or use drugs alone when you feel angry or sad?
  • Does your drinking or drug use ever make you late for class or interfere with completing assignments?
  • Do family or friends make comments that show they are worried about your drinking?
  • Do you ever drink or use drugs after telling yourself you need to stop?
  • Do you ever forget what you did while you were drinking or using drugs?
  • Do you get headaches or have a hang-over after you have been drinking or using drugs?

See what I mean?  It’s like the description of a typical game-day college party.  Each of these is a sign of a possible substance use disorder.  If these signs start to pile up . . .  Make sure your kid knows that these are the signs that they have a problem (which can also help to insure they will back off when they notice these showing up).

What will happen if you get caught with alcohol or drugs at school?

Look up the college’s alcohol and drug policy.  Your kid will tell you they aren’t enforced.  Call the campus police and ask for information about how many alcohol and drug arrests have been made on campus.  Campuses are increasingly prosecuting students when caught on campus.  You step off campus and it is local police.  The law is the law.

What is your safety plan if you decide to use?

Your kid needs a plan to keep themselves safe if they are under the influence.  This would include setting limits on drinking, having a designated sober person, making sure the place they are drinking is safe, insuring a safe return to their dorm (e.g., not alone).  Young women are the most vulnerable when under the influence so this is a particularly important discussion to have with them.

When has there been a time you refused to drink (same for drugs) when others were using?

If your kid can’t tell you about a time when others were using and they weren’t, you have cause for concern.

What are 3 ways to say “no” to alcohol or drugs?

Refusal skills can be useful.  Most kids don’t have a clue as to how to refuse gracefully.  Practice makes perfect.  “No thanks.” “Thanks anyway but I have to keep a clear head for class tomorrow.” “Here, you drink mine for me.” “I’m the designated driver/escort.”  Don’t forget the value of a substitute nonalcoholic drink (“Thanks, I’m still working on this one.”)

When my wife proof read this blog at the time of writing, she had a panic attack thinking about our kids being faced with these situations (even though they were both well into their college years).  So, keep in mind that these questions represent a way to help your kid be prepared for possible worst case scenarios.  There is more to discuss with your kid regarding alcohol and drug use than they will probably tolerate (“Aw, Dad!  Give me a break!”).  You can’t cover everything.  Pick and choose and add anything that occurs to you.  Raising awareness about these issues is the most important part.

Here are a couple of websites that have lots of useful information about alcohol and drug use: College Drinking Prevention or Century Council and Drugs of Abuse

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