Why should I be concerned if my child is drinking underage?

You might be tempted to turn a blind eye to your child's underage drinking, especially after s/he leaves home for college. You might even want to rationalize underage drinking as a normal "rite of passage" that is simply part of the college experience. However, the truth is that underage drinking is a dangerous, and potentially life-changing, behavior. It is true that most students who drink will not develop a serious alcohol problem, but many of them do, and it is impossible to tell in advance who will and will not develop these problems. Alcohol poisoning is a very serious and potentially lethal consequence-and one that can happen to anyone on a bad night, regardless of their usual drinking habits. Physical and sexual assaults, unwanted pregnancy, academic failure, and alcohol-impaired driving can all result from binge drinking.

Drinking is also likely to undermine your child's academic performance while in college.1 There are also a host of other problems that go along with underage drinking, even if the drinking itself is not chronically out of control. For example, underage drinkers are at increased risk for becoming victims of violent crime, being involved in alcohol-related motor-vehicle crashes, and having unprotected sex. Each year, alcohol is implicated in an estimated 599,000 unintentional injuries, 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape, and 1,825 deaths among U.S. college students.2

Can I teach my child to drink responsibly?

Research has shown that families are one of the biggest sources of influence on their child's drinking habits. Family members who model responsible drinking behaviors--such as having a glass of beer or wine with dinner--are likely to transmit those good habits to their children. However, research also suggests that well-intentioned family members who try to give their adolescent child opportunities to "practice" drinking responsibly before they go off to college are actually setting them up for more problems.

It turns out that the best predictor of how much a student will drink during college is how much they drank during high school, and that goes for non-drinkers as well. Unfortunately, this evidence flies in the face of the popular misconception that turning alcohol into a "forbidden fruit" only heightens a student's appetite for it. Everyone seems to know someone whose drinking "exploded when they got to college and escaped their family's strict controls"--but those cases are largely inaccurate.

Condoning or encouraging underage drinking--even in the safety of your own home--only increases the likelihood that a student will drink that much more when they are away from their families. On average, and over time, students who do not drink during high school will have a lower chance of drinking excessively or developing problems during college.3-5

What messages should I communicate regarding underage and excessive drinking?

Zero-tolerance messages appear to be most protective against alcohol use and related consequences, even if students are already using alcohol. In a study that assessed parental alcohol-related messages and the alcohol use among 585 students at a university in the U.S., it was found that parental communication of zero tolerance, or complete disapproval, of alcohol use was associated with the safest student behaviors regarding both weekend drinking and experienced consequences.6 Conversely, parents teaching their college students how to reduce the likelihood of harm if drinking occurs was found to be associated with the highest levels of risk behaviors. Be firm about your stance. Set clear rules about no alcohol use and emphasize the harmful consequences of underage drinking.

How can I reduce the chances that my child will develop a problem associated with drinking alcohol?

As part of preparing their child to leave for college, families should initiate conversations about alcohol use and the consequences of excessive drinking. Family members can take the initiative to find out about the school's alcohol policies and penalties for alcohol violations, and discuss these with their child. Once the student has settled in at college, family members should check in frequently with their child about how things are going with roommate(s), friends, and their living situation in general, as well as their classes. Keeping the lines of communication open throughout the school year will help parents be able to pick up on any warning signs that a problematic pattern of drinking might be developing. The first six weeks of the freshman year are an especially important time during which a successful transition to college life can be derailed by excessive drinking, difficulty managing academic pressures, or adjusting socially.

How should I get involved prior to sending my child to college?

As college-bound students and parents work together to research schools and prioritize their preferred choices, they should pay attention to the drinking culture at those schools. Parents should look for schools that have solid alcohol policies in place and are enforcing laws on underage drinking. Students should have access to a diverse range of activities and social outlets that do not involve alcohol. Also, take time to peruse campus newspapers and other local media. Pay attention to what the news stories, editorials, and advertisements reflect about each school's drinking culture.

I've never spoken to my child about alcohol--is it too late?

Better late than never. The transition to college can provide a natural impetus to raise the topic of drinking and drug use if you've never discussed it before. In college, your child will most likely be exposed to frequent opportunities to drink, as well as opportunities to try various drugs for the first time. Even if you suspect or know that your child has already been drinking during high school, it is important to prepare them for these experiences so that they know what to do when the opportunity presents itself.

As a family member, what EXACTLY should I be telling my child about alcohol?

As you prepare your child for all the changes that will occur when they start college, send a clear message that you expect your child to avoid drinking and drug use during college. This does not make you naïve-this makes you a good family member. Research has consistently shown that family's beliefs, values, and norms about alcohol have the biggest influence on reducing their child's risk for drinking and alcohol-related problems-even during late adolescence.7

By all means, talk about the serious harms to self and others that can result from excessive drinking (i.e., DUI, blacking out, injury, victimization, alcohol poisoning, and even death), but also recognize that these consequences might not deter your child from drinking because young people tend to think that they are "invincible" and can't picture such serious things ever happening to them. Therefore, you should also talk about the less severe, but much more common, consequences of drinking, such as doing stupid things while they are drunk that lead to humiliation, painful misunderstandings, social rejection, or a bad reputation. Another strategy is to engage your child in an honest dialogue about their goals and expectations for what they want to accomplish while they are in college. Many students look back on their college years with regret and recognize that excessive drinking was a bad influence that interfered with their ability to achieve their goals.

Thinking about long-term success, your college-bound child might also be interested in knowing that research has shown the deck is stacked against college students who engage in excessive drinking. Research has shown that they tend to have lower GPAs, lower likelihood of graduating, less prestigious jobs after college, and lower lifetime earnings.

As you prepare your child for college, be confident about the strength of your influence. Research suggests that parents maintain a strong influence on their children even after they have moved away to college.8 In particular, parents are the primary source of health information for college students.

What if my child is already drinking or has had some previous alcohol issues during high school-- what treatment/resources are available going into college?

You are not alone. The 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that among high school students, during the past 30 days, 39% drank some amount of alcohol, 22% binge drank, and 8% drove after drinking alcohol.9 If your student is already drinking or has had a drinking problem before college, it is important to realize that college is a high-risk environment where drinking might be common. As part of the research you do when trying to select a college, pay attention to campus resources that are available to students in recovery, such as counseling services, 12-step meetings, and recovery houses and groups. It is also crucial to pay attention to the environment surrounding the campus. This includes how many alcohol outlets are clustered near the campus, the advertisements and promotions targeted directly towards college students, and the role of alcohol in the lives of the school's athletes and Panhellenic organizations. As your child prepares to move on campus, educate yourself about the campus' health services and alcohol policies. Also, familiarize yourself with the types of resources that exist in the surrounding community (i.e., substance abuse and mental health clinics and trained professionals), especially if your child will be attending college far from home.

While the transition to college can be challenging, it can also be viewed as an opportunity for a "fresh start", where you child can meet new friends who do not drink, and get involved in activities that do not center around alcohol. It is important to maintain communication with your child about their classes, friends, living situation, and overall adjustment to college life--these conversations will help you pick up on changes that could signal the beginnings of a relapse of an earlier drinking problem. Emphasize that you are willing to provide support through their transition to college, and that you will be there to help them access professional help if necessary to deal with a relapse. If an alcohol problem does occur during college, make sure your child follows through on any referrals to on-campus or off-campus counseling services. Maintain constructive communication with your child. Reactive emotions and judgmental thoughts surface easily when family members are faced with a child's alcohol problem and can be counterproductive.10 A skilled counselor with training in substance abuse treatment can help you deal with your own feelings during this process.

What is FERPA? How does FERPA impact my "right to know"?

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, (formerly the Buckley Amendment, passed in 1974) is a federal law that keeps student education records confidential. Parents have certain rights regarding student records, but once a student turns 18, these rights belong to the students.10,11 The 1998 amendment to FERPA (section 952 of the Higher Education Reauthorization Act or HERA) allows, but does not require notification to parents if their child (who is under 21) is responsible for any substance violations.12 The amendment encourages interaction and discussion between universities/colleges and parents.10

Because FERPA/HERA does not require schools to notify parents about an alcohol or drug violation, schools have different policies about parental notification. Educate yourself about the specific policy in place at your child's school, as well as their attitudes about substance use on campus and parental notification. It is not uncommon for college administrators to believe (mistakenly) that FERPA prohibits parental notification. According to the U.S. Department of Education, "schools may inform parents if the student, if s/he is under age 21, has violated any law or policy concerning the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance."11 Keep in mind that you are your child's best advocate, so it's important to keep a working relationship with not only your child, but the institution that is educating your child.

What can families do following a parental notification?

No family member looks forward to finding out that their child has violated an alcohol or drug policy on campus. Yet this can be an opportunity for increasing communication with your child about their alcohol use and the problems that ensued from that violation. Realize that the violation can be an important learning opportunity for your child. In fact, family members often report that this situation results in a positive behavior change for the student. Aside from the penalties imposed by the school, many families impose additional consequences on their child, such as requiring the child to come up with the money to pay the fines and fees associated with the violation, suspending privileges like access to a car, or removing certain types of financial support. Parental notification can also lead to greater communication between families and the school.10


1. Martinez JA, Sher KJ, Wood PK. Is heavy drinking really associated with attrition from college? The alcohol-attrition paradox. Psychol Addict Behav. 2008;22(3):450-456.

2. Hingson R, Zha W, Weitzman ER. Magnitude of and trends in alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18-24, 1998-2005. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2009(16):12-20.

3. Jacob T, Johnson S. Parenting influences on the development of alcohol abuse and dependence. Alcohol Health Res World. 1997;21(3):204-209.

4. Reifman A, Barnes GM, Dintcheff BA, Farrell MP, Uhteg L. Parental and peer influences on the onset of heavier drinking among adolescents. J Stud Alcohol. 1998;59(3):311-317.

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6. Abar CC, Morgan NR, Small ML, Maggs JL. Investigating associations between perceived parental alcohol-related messages and college student drinking. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2012;73(1):71-79.

7. Wood MD, Read JP, Mitchell RE, Brand NH. Do parents still matter? Parent and peer influences on alcohol involvement among recent high school graduates. Psychol Addict Behav. 2004;18(1):19-30.

8. Kashubeck S, Christensen SA. Parental Alcohol Use, Family Relationship Quality, Self-Esteem, and Depression in College Students. J Coll Stud Dev. 1995;36(5):431-443.

9. Center for Disease Control. Preventing excessive alcohol consumption. The community guide. 2012; http://www.thecommunityguide.org/alcohol/index.html. Accessed May 16, 2013.

10. Cosden M, Hughes JB. Parents' perspectives on parental notification of college students' alcohol use. J Stud Aff Res Pract. 2012;49(1):51-64.

11. United States Department of Education. Parents' guide to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act: rights regarding children's education records. US Department of Education, Washington, DC. 2007; http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/brochures/parents.html. Accessed May 5, 2013.

12. Weeks KM. Family-friendly FERPA policies: affirming parental partnerships. New Dir Stud Serv. 2001;2001(94):39-50.