In a June blog, I wrote about prom night and drinking. Frosh week brings with it just as much danger but for other reasons. This time, kids are likely not to be at home the day after they experiment with alcohol.
First, though, some good news. Unless a child comes from a home where drinking is a problem, tasting alcohol while underage is unlikely to lead to problem drinking later in life. But if your family has a history of alcohol abuse, or your child has already drank to the point of drunkenness, is binge drinking, or hanging out with a peer group like a fraternity that promotes drinking to excess, he or she may be at risk for a lifetime of problems.
Now the really bad news (as if what I just wrote isn’t bad enough). A new study by the Centre for Addiction Research of British Columbia is raising alarm bells about young adults who drink. The study found that they are very likely to underestimate the amount they drink and the impact it’s having on their lives. With frosh week coming, this is something we need to tell our kids.
In general, high risk consumption of alcohol for an adult is considered any daily consumption of more than four drinks a day for a man, and three drinks a day for a woman, up to a maximum of 15 drinks per week for men, and 10 per week for women. To some, that number may seem low, but having spoken frequently with police chiefs who have to lock up drunks every weekend and respond to domestic violence or jail drunk drivers, these limits seem plenty high enough. Overall, as a public health problem, alcohol consumption ranks very high.
Part of the explanation for so many alcohol related problems is that drinkers are chronic, albeit unintentional, liars when it comes to admitting how much alcohol they consume, especially if it’s hard liquor. We’ve known for years that self-reported rates of consumption tend to account for only about half of all the alcohol sold. Researchers have learned that they can get very different estimates of how much someone is drinking depending on how they ask their questions. Asking people how much they drank in the past day leads to better reporting than if someone is asked about their drinking pattern over the last week or month.
And that is the problem during frosh week. Young adults are especially prone to underestimating the amount of alcohol they consume. When asked better questions, they self-report rates of consumption almost triple their original estimates.
To my mind, that’s a serious problem. If you are a parent with a child away for the first time at college, and your child tells you they’ve had a few drinks in the past week, you should triple their estimate if you want an accurate picture of what they’re up to and if you should be worried. Underestimating consumption is especially dangerous for younger drinker who might be lulled into thinking they don't have a problem when in fact they are establishing a pattern of dangerous drinking, either because of their daily consumption or because they are binge drinking on the weekends.
The solution to this problem seems to be to talk more openly with children about alcohol before they leave for college. If there are no problem drinkers in your home, and your child isn’t using alcohol or other drugs to deal with anxiety or to be more sociable, you may also want to show your child how to nurse a beer all night, and talk about the positive and negative affects of alcohol. Consensus is that parents shouldn’t encourage children to ever drink to the point of drunkenness, but a single drink will do little if any harm.
There are other danger signs that children will drink too much while away at college. Joining a fraternity still carries with it the likelihood that your child will drink more and develop a drinking problem. Anxiety, too, tends to be associated with substance abuse. If your child is anxious about living away from home, a frank discussion about the danger of self-medicating with drugs or alcohol is likely needed.
Finally, you may want to devise some way your child can keep accurate track of how much alcohol he or she is consuming. A little coaching on how much booze to buy (or not buy) at one time, and talking about problem drinking before it starts is always a good idea. Simply telling your kid “Don’t drink” is the least effective strategy for harm reduction. The one exception to that rule is if your family home is alcohol free and you can say “Abstain” without any hint of hypocrisy.
This coming frosh week, my concern is that young people will be drinking far more than they intended. Don’t be shy to encourage your child to get assessed if you see a problem developing.