Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Back-to-School Drugs and Alcohol Guide for Parents

Your college student is back on campus by now. Here’s what you need to know.

Back to school, 2022.

It’s a happy but scary time for parents of college students. You’re happy that Covid has finally loosened its vice grip, so most if not all college classes are in-person and even maskless this semester. Hooray! That is something to celebrate with your returning scholar.

But it’s a scary time, too. Your child may be hundreds if not thousands of miles away, is no longer required to follow your house rules, and is living on his or her own in a dorm or off-campus. Is he going to be binge drinking? Is she going to try weed or something stronger at a fraternity or sorority party? Are they going to take something that could be dangerous, maybe without even knowing it?

In this back-to-school guide for parents, I will discuss those concerns, and others as well. My goal is to inform you about some of the key alcohol- and drug-related problems out there today, and suggest a few ways to deal with them. That way you’ll know a little more about what’s going on, and what your child may be dealing with as well.

5 ways to keep your child safe, and help you stay sane

Stay in touch: Many parents think their kids want to be left alone when they go away to school—they overcompensate by not checking in at all. No need for that. Even if your child doesn’t say it, he or she very likely wants you to be there and to keep the communication lines open and active, especially if it’s their first year away.

Share what you know: Plenty of things about college life have changed since you were there, but most haven’t. Therefore, it’s okay to share what your experiences were. What worked out, what didn’t, what got you into trouble, what kept you out of it, and so on. That memory you have of always sticking together with your friends if you went out to a bar or campus party? Share it, that’s a useful one.

Keep expectations realistic: I’ve known parents who make deals with their college-bound kids—if you don’t drink beer for the entire first semester, we’ll pay you $1,000. That can work, but often it doesn’t. It’s better to approach things realistically. Your child is likely going to at least try alcohol and maybe other drugs as well. To help your child be smart, broach the topic of harm reduction. That is, things like fentanyl test strips (more on fentanyl below), clean needle programs, Narcan (suboxone) spray for overdoses, and other strategies that meet people where they are and help keep them safe if they’re using drugs or alcohol. Implicit in all of these harm-reduction strategies is the end goal of quitting.

Listen, but don’t judge: This is good advice for parents of adult children. If there’s one thing guaranteed to shut down communication, it’s when a parent starts judging and lecturing. Listen. You’ll have the chance to share your wisdom and experience and offer advice in a nonjudgmental way. Related tip: Consider using “what” questions versus “why” questions. The latter can sound accusatory and may put your child on the spot. For example, you might say “What isn’t going well?” instead of “Why aren’t you enjoying college?”

Let them know it’s fine to seek help: Colleges are better about promoting their on-campus mental health services and clinics. It might be worth reinforcing this option by letting your student know you would support them if they need to seek help. In fact, urge them to contact the student health clinic if they’re feeling low, stuck, or overwhelmed, or if you sense they’re having trouble controlling their alcohol or drug use.

Three danger areas

Let’s go deeper into three things that could spell trouble for your college student. I don’t mean to scare you. It’s just better if you know are getting accurate information.

Binge drinking: This is defined as bringing your blood alcohol concentration up to .08 percent—consuming four or more drinks for a woman, or five or more drinks for a man, in about two hours. Also, one drink equates to a 12-ounce beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or a mixed drink that contains 1.5 ounces of alcohol.

If your child binge drinks at college, does it mean they’re an alcoholic and in serious trouble? No. But it could be a warning sign. Know that the majority of bingeing happens among college-age adults, simply because it can. Young adults often have more time, more socializing opportunities, and they don’t have to get up for work at 7 or 8 am. For most people, binge drinking decreases dramatically or stops altogether as they move into their mid and late 20s and have more responsibilities.

That said, bingeing can be a sign of alcohol use disorder (AUD). To determine if that’s the case, clinicians look at other risk factors of alcohol addiction, including:

  • A genetic predisposition for AUD.
  • A family history of alcohol overuse.
  • A history of trauma.
  • Depression, anxiety disorder, or other co-occurring mental health issues.

If one or more of these is present along with regular binge episodes, that person likely needs to seek help. The key question: Is the alcohol use affecting your child’s life? For example, is it hurting school performance? Is it causing relationship issues? Is your child getting into legal or financial troubles at home or at school?

If alcohol use is doing any of those things, your college student may have a serious drinking problem. It’s likely time to get medical advice. For more on binge drinking, please read: Does My Binge Drinking Mean I’m an Alcoholic?

Fentanyl: A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Increasingly, fentanyl is getting added to other illegally manufactured drugs, often in pill form, to increase their potency. Many times, people don’t even know they’re taking fentanyl; they think they’re taking a prescription pill.

People often get these pills when they run out of their regular prescriptions. They go online or on social media to get a refill of what they think are their regular prescription pills—Xanax, Adderall, Oxycodone, or some other drug. They don’t know they’re getting something completely different that looks exactly like what they’ve been taking. The counterfeits even get stamped with numbers and letters to look like the real thing.

Also, other drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and even weed are sometimes laced with fentanyl. This makes the drugs far more potent and potentially deadly for people who may have a tolerance for the host drug, but not for fentanyl.

Marijuana: Weed, in any of its forms, is not a health food, yet we often talk about it, market it, and sell it like it is. Because of this positive hype, many people think it’s safer and less addictive than it is. In fact, it can be quite addictive—and dangerous.

Two key things. First, weed remains a gateway drug. Calling it this was never just alarmist talk from your mom or dad; it was true then, and it’s true now. In the addiction treatment field, we’re seeing a lot of teens developing cannabis use disorder in the last few years. Many kids vape it, which is an easier way to use it, often in a more concentrated form. And yes, it can prime the brain to respond addictively to other drugs.

Second, it’s way more powerful than it used to be. In the 1990s, marijuana’s average THC concentration was about 4 percent. (The THC part is what gets you high; the CBD part is what gets you relaxed.) By 2018, average THC concentration was more than 15 percent. This level of potency is concerning, as it’s more addictive.

Bottom line: Marijuana is more potent and addictive than it has ever been, it’s readily available, and the marketing around it is powerful and, at times, misleadingly positive. Tell your college-bound child to be careful.

To conclude, consider telling your child that it would be completely fine for him or her to make use of the available campus resources if they’re running into trouble with depression, anxiety, drug or alcohol use, or if they’re just feeling overwhelmed. That’s what the health clinic is for. They can also check in with their resident assistant (RA) to ask about other resources. These supports can help your child settle into a happy and productive school year.

More from Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby M.D.
More from Psychology Today