Despite a common belief that parents’ influence on youth behavior wanes as teens migrate from high school to college, recent research from Penn State University points to this key transition period as a time when young people greatly benefit from Mom’s or Dad’s guidance in decision-making.
In fact, those interventions may be more important than ever.
What’s Going On
According to a new survey from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, conducted in partnership with SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), approximately one-third of teens are experimenting with risky behaviors during their first semester at college.
For example, roughly one-third of current college students surveyed reported drinking alcohol (37 percent), engaging in intimate sexual behavior (37 percent), or having sexual intercourse (32 percent) at the beginning of college.
Among these teens, one-quarter to nearly half report engaging in these behaviors for the first time:
Why It’s Happening
According to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, there’s a salient trifecta behind these behaviors.
It’s that last piece, the “social norming” influence (teens tend to overestimate the percentage of their peer group engaging in alcohol use and other risk behaviors which, in turn, makes it more likely they will choose those behaviors), that has been the focus of many on-campus campaigns at both the high school and college levels. While clearly many first-year college students do sometimes put themselves at risk, not all are doing so. For example, the 2011 Monitoring the Future study found that alcohol consumption among college students has declined 12 percent since 1991.
Why It Matters
Of course, many of these behaviors are interrelated. According to The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, alcohol use by young people is a leading contributor to death from injuries, plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, increases the risk of assault, and is associated with academic failure and illicit drug use. Specifically, this important report highlights that:
Just as significant, the report points to emerging facts about the permanent damage alcohol can inflict upon the structure and function of still-developing adolescent and young adult brains.
What Parents Can Do
Even those students who are drinking can still learn to reduce risk behaviors, and parental expectations and communication play an important role, as evidenced by the Penn State research and suggested by more than a decade of research at SADD.
Now that the first semester is in the rearview mirror and college students around the country prepare to return to campus, parents might start – or continue – the conversation by:
But parents are only part of the solution. Clearly, colleges and universities have a role to play, as well. So, in a very real sense, that partnership might best help students to develop and maintain healthy lifestyles throughout their college careers and beyond.
Parents and other caring adults--the ultimate tag team.
Stephen Gray Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor.
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