Does Your College Student Have a Problem with Addiction?

Steps parents can take to identify & treat drug and alcohol problems

Posted Feb 27, 2016

One of the hardest and most heartbreaking problems a parent may face is having a child with addiction.

Substance abuse or dependence is all too common on college campuses, affecting ¼ of college students. Some students already come to school with these problems, while others begin to use drugs or drink excessively during their first days on campus. Alcohol, marijuana, and Adderall are the most commonly misused substances in college, but students are also using Xanax, narcotics, cocaine, LSD and mushrooms.

How do you know if your child has a substance abuse problem? What would you do if this happened?

This article describes how parents can recognize substance abuse problems and encourage their children to get treatment. It is a follow up to my blog post regarding parent prevention tips for substance abuse on campus. Unfortunately, many parents, despite doing all the right things, have a child with addiction problems. This article is not a comprehensive report on treatment, but I hope it will encourage parents who suspect there is a problem to seek help from a mental health professional or an addiction specialist.  

Eddie Rohilla/Flickr
Source: Eddie Rohilla/Flickr

Recognizing Substance Abuse or Addiction in the College Student

There are several signs that a college student could be having a drug or alcohol problem (although each individual sign could indicate a range of other problems as well). If more than a few are happening, parents should be concerned.

A drop in grades: Some students manage to get good grades while abusing drugs, but the drugs usually catch up with them. They may oversleep and miss class or have trouble concentrating. I urge all parents to encourage their child to sign a form in college so they can view final grades at the end of each semester.

Mood swings: I often see students who are experiencing depression or irritability related to drug abuse. If parents become aware of these mood changes, ask your child what is stressing her out, and ask if she sometimes uses drugs or alcohol to cope. Whatever the cause of these mood swings, parents should encourage their child to speak with a therapist. Parents may also request their child sign a release form so they can speak with the therapist. Tell your child you are there to help and that you want to talk with the therapist about the changes you have noticed.

Increased spending: Some students will spend a great deal of money on drugs. Parents should encourage their children to allow them to view their bank account or have a joint account. If there are unexplained withdrawals, parents may want to ask what their children are purchasing.

School discipline problems or legal problems: If your child faces school discipline or legal trouble due to drug or alcohol use, take this seriously. Your child might minimize the problem, but always talk with them about your concerns.  

Other signs of drug use could be sleep changes, social isolation, and weight loss.

Parent Response to Substance Abuse or Addiction in the College Student

What should parents do if they discover their child has a substance abuse problem?

Parents should contact their student’s college counseling center to see what resources are available on campus to promote recovery. Many schools now offer collegiate recovery centers or programs that could include AA meetings, sober living dorms, and alcohol free social events. The university where I work offers a continuum of services for alcohol and drug issues designed to keep students in school.

Some students will be mandated into treatment by the school as a condition of remaining a student if their behavior has been disruptive or dangerous. If a student is arrested as a result of a drug or alcohol offense, the legal system may mandate treatment as well.

What if the problems are reaching a point that the child’s life is at risk? She may have been in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, had a psychotic reaction to Adderall abuse, or has failed most classes because she is drinking heavily every night.

I asked my colleague Joan Scully, Coordinator of  Alcohol and Other Drug Services at the University of Florida, what she would advise parents facing this challenging situation. “Parents should respond with love and not moral judgment. It’s not that the college student lacks self-discipline or a has moral failing.”

Scully encourages the student and parents to meet with an addiction counselor; together they can talk about treatment options. What if the student won’t agree to treatment? In a loving, caring way the parents can offer their child a choice – participating in some type of substance abuse treatment (in an outpatient or residential level of care as needed) or losing the parents’ financial support. In some cases, "Parents need to move away from enabling their student's use, and removing financial support can provide motivation for the student to get and stay clean and sober."

Parents should continue to work with an addiction expert to seek answers if their child will not pursue treatment on their own. I recommend parents also get emotional support for themselves through individual or group therapy.

Some students take longer to realize they have a drug or alcohol problem, but with the love, support and encouragement of their parents they can begin their journey to recovery sooner.

©2016 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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