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How to Help Your College Freshman Stay Sober

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

The facts are shocking and unexpected for parents of many teens. Freshman college students start drinking heavily immediately after arriving on campus, according to a review of research published by the National Institutes of Health. In addition, first-year college students account for one-third of campus deaths, even though they comprise only one-quarter of the student body and most of those deaths are alcohol-related in some way.  Freshman also commit more acts of violence and vandalism and are more likely to land in the emergency room than older students, again largely because of their drinking behavior.

So, if your teen is heading off to college this fall, how can you insulate him from these dangers? What can you do to help your teen stay sober?

Most freshman drinking is done on the weekends early in the term, at social gatherings. While college men drink more than college women, both men and women tend to binge drink at parties where alcohol is the centerpiece. Binge drinking – downing many ounces of alcohol in a short period of time – puts students at risk for alcohol poisoning.  Drinking games are an important part of the college social scene, particularly for younger students.

An interesting finding is that while kids who are not college-bound drink more in high school than do kids who are college-bound, once in college the opposite is true. College freshman drink more than high school grads who didn’t go to college.

Another key finding is the fact that freshman students who pledge to a fraternity or sorority are much more likely to abuse alcohol than are freshman who are not involved. Pledge-week activities and initiation rituals tend to include drinking; the drive to be accepted in these clubs inclines students to over-consume. This is especially true of fraternities and freshmen men.

Religion only marginally affected a student’s drinking. While students with a strong religious background were less likely to drink heavily, this effect disappeared under strong peer pressure or when a student joined a fraternity or sorority. The need to be accepted as part of the group overrode religious teachings for many students.

What can you do? The research compiled in this review study point to solid, supportive parent-child relationships, especially between fathers and sons, as having a dampening effect on student alcohol use. In contrast, students who reported that their parents, and especially their mothers, were okay with their drinking got into trouble with alcohol more often and more severely. This means:

  • Let your teen know how you feel about her drinking in college and make it clear that you expect her to limit her drinking.
  • Talk over with your teen strategies for being social without drinking heavily. Teens don’t know the tricks older students know, about sipping a drink over time, substituting soft drinks for alcohol, and avoiding drinking games.
  • Avoid pushing your child to join a sorority or fraternity. If he decides to pledge, keep an extra eye out for evidence of heavy alcohol consumption. Help your teen be aware of the dangers.
  • Keep the lines of communication open. Avoid being harsh or overly restrictive, forcing your teen to keep secrets from you.

One of the most important findings from this research is this: clear limits on drinking set by parents and parents’ lack of permissiveness about alcohol reduced the influence of peers, even when teens were away at school. Instead of sending your teen off to college without discussing alcohol use, take the time to talk things through. Making your expectations clear may keep your kid healthy and out of trouble.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.