Parental Concerns about Substance Abuse and Addiction

Out of 2,000 students surveyed, 70% reported that parental concerns/expectations influence whether or how much they use drugs and alcohol, as stated by Dianne Hales in her book An Invitation to Health. A parent’s reaction to a student’s addiction plays a significant role in the progression and success of any rehabilitation efforts. Approaching the situation delicately and reinforcing positive behaviors can reaffirm the student’s positive choices and encourage healthy behaviors.

The University of Wyoming Alcohol Wellness Alternatives, Research, & Education program (AWARE) suggests that parents discuss risk factors and drug concerns with their college students openly and welcome any questions from students. Parents need to open the lines of communication and make themselves available for honest and informative discussions about substance abuse and the effects thereof.

Below are some topics parents may choose to reinforce when discussing substance abuse with their student:

  • Set clear and realistic expectations regarding drug and alcohol use
  • Encourage a balance of academics and social activities
  • Be a good role model
  • Engage in a continuous mutual dialog about drug and alcohol use
  • Discuss some treatment options and encourage your child’s suggestions

According to the University of Georgia Health Center, if a parent suspects their child has a substance abuse problem, it is important to be aware of their own behaviors and the potential risk of enabling destructive behaviors. Methods of enabling include:

  • Denial of the problem
  • Financially and emotionally ‘”bailing them out” of trouble
  • Lying on their behalf
  • making excuses for them
  • taking responsibility for their use
  • Overlooking high risk behaviors

Enabling can be defined as an action by a person(s) that allows or contributes to the behavior, whether intentional or unintentional. Parents have the responsibility to challenge and create an environment for their student in which low-risk choices come naturally, positive choices are the first response, and healthy behaviors are constantly reinforced.

The University of Georgia Health Center encourages the use of the ‘”I Care, I See, I Feel, I Want, I Will” format when approaching sensitive subjects, including substance abuse and addiction. Emphasize to the student that the focus is on their well being, and because of your love and concern; you must discuss an important issue. Verbally review factual events; evidence of destructive behavior or substance abuse – only rely on observable, irrefutable facts that do not leave room for dispute. Express concerns regarding destructive behaviors and substance abuse using ‘”I” statements instead of ‘”you”. Express to the student what you would like to see happen, such as ‘”I would like to see you talk to someone about this.” Finally specify what you will or will not accept; it is important to set concrete boundaries and enforce those boundaries for the benefit of the student.

Be prepared for your student to react in anger or denial as these are common reactions of substance users when confronted. From many student’s viewpoint, admitting they have a problem is similar to admitting failure. Feelings of worthlessness and disappointment add to the risk of substance abuse as a way of further avoiding the problem.

Additional resources for parents of college students struggling with addiction:

Eight Points for Parents Speaking with Students About Alcohol

Addressing Parental Concerns about Drug Abuse

Alcohol and Drug Abuse on College Campuses

Article to Help Parents Cope with Addict/Alcoholic Students

How Parents Can Make a Difference

New York State Research on College Students and Suicide Related to Substance Abuse

Addiction Factors Explained

Teens Health Guide: Dealing with Addiction

Conversation Guide for Parents of College-Age Children

Guide for Parents of College Students