Talking to your college-aged children about alcohol and marijuana

Alcohol and marijuana use is prevalent among college students. How can you address it from home and before your child goes off to college? More here.

minute read
By Harold Clifton Urschel III, M.D., M.M.A.
Chief Medical Strategist, Enterhealth

It’s no secret that involved and supportive parents raise teenagers who do better in school, have healthier relationships and stay out of trouble. As you prepare your child for life after high school, you may be concerned about maintaining an active and positive presence in your child’s life without infringing on their independence.

Ideally, you’ve already had conversations about the dangers of substance abuse, such as alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, with your child as they’ve ventured through middle school and high school. But, how can you talk to your soon-to-leave-for-college child about drinking alcohol and using marijuana or other substances? We review in this article and invite you to post your questions at the end.

Preaching is not talking

As your child inches closer to adulthood, the tone of the conversation needs to shift from enforcement to helping your child navigate and understand how the scope of their decisions can significantly impact their future. There are ways to approach those often difficult and sometimes dreaded conversations while still keeping the line of communication open as your child transitions into adulthood.

Remember to make it feel like a conversation, and not a lecture. Your child needs to know that if any problems or difficult situations arise regarding the use of alcohol or drugs, they can turn to you as a valuable resource.

The dangers of alcohol and marijuana for college students

While alcohol use is widespread and promoted by pop culture, it is important to recognize the dangers associated with overuse. Alcohol is in fact the most commonly abused drug in the United States, where 17.6 million people – or one in every 12 adults – suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, with several million more engaging in binge drinking that could lead to alcohol problems, such as addiction.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), about four out of five college students drink alcohol. It’s important to talk to your college-aged children about the short- and long-term effects of alcohol. For teenagers, the effects of a drunken night out may linger long after the hangover wears off. Studies have shown that the earlier a person uses alcohol, the more likely it could lead to abuse or addiction. Addiction is a chronic disease, and while it can be controlled, it’s important to recognize that it cannot be cured.

In addition to alcohol, many college students experiment with marijuana. Teenagers and young adults are more vulnerable to the effects of marijuana because their rapidly growing and maturing brains are more susceptible to injury from the drug. So, does marijuana cause brain damage? The more potent the marijuana, the more damage it can cause to the brain.

With the legalization of marijuana in some states, your college-aged child may latch onto the notion that marijuana is a safe and non-addicting substance. However, that is far from the truth. Marijuana lowers IQ, decreases motivation to excel and achieve goals. Marijuana strips users of their motivation and drive to be successful and competitive with their classmates. Explaining to your children that marijuana can cause brain damage and underperformance academically may deter them from experimenting with the drug.

Substance use and the teen brain

You and your children may not realize that the teenage years are the most important time for brain development after infancy. Neurons in the brain are growing and strengthening, connections are developing to allow the brain to transmit information faster and allow the brain to process complex thoughts.

Evidence suggests that heavy exposure to alcohol and marijuana can cause cognitive deficits, including memory problems. The limbic system, the part of the brain that is involved in processing social and emotional information, develops early in adolescents. However, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain which involves judgment, impulse control and abstract thought as well as the ability to anticipate the consequences of your actions – isn’t fully shaped until a person’s late 20s. The use of alcohol and marijuana causes brain damage and is especially troublesome during these developmental years.

College drinking and marijuana use risks

Besides the actual brain injury itself, excessive use of alcohol or binge drinking can put your college-aged child in vulnerable situations. According to the NIAAA, along with other sources of data, researchers have estimated the following rates and prevalence of alcohol-related problems involving college students:

  • Death: 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from unintentional alcohol-related incidents.
  • Assault: More than 690,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
  • Sexual Abuse: More than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
  • Injury: 599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 receive unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Academic Problems: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers and receiving lower grades overall.
  • Health Problems/Suicide Attempts: More than 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem and between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.

All of the above can dramatically impact a college student’s life. Parents need to remind their college-aged children that substance use injures the brain, and that the whole reason they’re going to college is to train their brain so that they can have a competitive edge in the workforce.

What to do in case of alcohol and marijuana addiction?

As we know, addiction grows more serious over time. The illness becomes more difficult to treat, and the risk of related health problems such as kidney or liver damage becomes worse. According to the NIAAA, research shows us that early use of multiple substances is associated with higher rates of dependence on substances in young adults. They found that adolescents who used alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana prior to age 16 were twice as likely to meet the criteria for marijuana dependence and three times as likely to be dependent on other illicit drugs.
If you suspect that your young adult child may have a problem with alcohol or drug abuse or addiction, it’s important to seek the help of medical professionals equipped with the latest tools and assessments to determine the next steps.

At Enterhealth Ranch and Enterhealth Outpatient Center of Excellence, we treat alcohol and drug addiction and abuse as a medical condition – a chronic brain disease – beginning with a complete medical and psychological assessment. In order to determine the most important areas of clinical concern – each assessment includes:

  • Personality and neurocognitive testing
  • A psychiatric diagnostic evaluation
  • An addiction severity assessment
  • An addiction-related quality of life assessment

Through these assessments, we are able to identify areas of the brain that have sustained injury due to alcohol or drug abuse.

Addiction is a chronic disease, and while it can be controlled, it’s important to recognize that it cannot be cured. Enterhealth, which has inpatient and outpatient addiction treatment services, offers a science-based approach to alcohol addiction treatment. A dedicated team of medical experts works with each patient on an individual basis to develop a treatment plan unique to that particular person. The approach is truly innovative and far different from traditional 12-step programs.

College students and addiction questions

We strongly urge parents or guardians to talk to their children about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse sooner rather than later.
In case you have something to ask or would like to learn more, we welcome you to share your questions in the designated section below. We try to reply to all legitimate inquiries with a personal and prompt response.

About the author
Dr. Urschel is Co-Founder and Chief Medical Strategist for Enterhealth, one of the finest residential and outpatient treatment programs in the nation. Known as one of the country's foremost authorities on substance abuse and addiction, Dr. Harold Urschel is the author of the New York Times best seller, “Healing the Addicted Brain.” He is a coveted speaker on substance abuse and the latest treatments of the chronic brain disease of addiction on both the local and national stage.
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