Sending a student off to college is an experience filled with mixed emotions. On one hand, you’re proud of your student’s accomplishments and happy that the sacrifices and investments you’ve made in their life have helped get them to this point. On the other hand, you’re anxious about what lies ahead and all the challenges they will face on their own. You’re probably wondering whether or not you’ve filled their “toolbox” with the proper skills to make smart decisions.
College years are, by definition, a time to explore, discover, and develop new and lasting friendships. Most importantly, they’ll also gain knowledge and skills that will help them navigate through an increasingly complex world. At the same time, the science shows us that ages 18 to 25 are the peak developmental period for the onset of alcohol and other drug problems as well as mental health disorders. In fact, the adolescent brain is not fully developed until the late 20’s and the “CEO” part of the brain (the regions responsible for planning and regulation of behavior) develops a lot slower than the emotional centers of the brain. The result is that young adults in this age group tend to make decisions based on their emotions more than sound logical reasoning. That’s where you—as family/trusted adult—come in. You can improve your student’s rational decision making, and this website can help you do that.
You might be concerned that paying too much attention to your student will hamper their ability to make their own decisions. Know that it is possible (and important) for you to provide guidance and for them to develop autonomy at the same time. You are still important in their lives, and your opinions and advice matter—even when they do not seem to acknowledge or appreciate it!
Developmentally appropriate communication requires a two-way street, where your student can feel safe expressing their feelings and thoughts, and you can provide honest feedback in a caring way. It’s critical to keep the door open to communication—to remind them that they can tell you what’s on their mind, what decisions they’ve made (big and small), and what’s going on with their friends and their classes. The goal at this age is to help them self-advocate and assist them in finding resources to solve problems rather than solving the problem for them.
In developing this website, our team conducted focus groups with parents of college students. They told us that they didn’t need “more information”. The number one thing they wanted to know was how to meaningfully communicate with their student: how to start an important conversation, and what to say to increase the likelihood that they would listen and make a smart and healthy decision.
Parents told us they were scared about all the things that can go wrong related to alcohol and drug use, including overdoses, sexual assault, and poor grades. They feel like they are in the dark about what is happening in the lives of their students and what is happening on campus. In addition to concerns about excessive alcohol use, recent changes in cannabis (marijuana) laws, cannabis availability, and cannabis potency have left families confused about the facts and worried about how to respond to this rapidly changing situation. Your student can be one resource for information about school happenings, new trends on campus related to alcohol and other drugs, and their involvement with these substances. However, other resources can also be helpful, such as their school’s health or counseling center, as well as parent and family affairs staff. You can also sign up to receive our quarterly email newsletter.
This website is designed to equip you with some tools and resources that will help you engage in effective communication with your student. You’ll find some statistics about alcohol, cannabis, and related problems. However, the main focus is how to talk with your student. We’ve organized it by common situations that can include high-risk drinking or substance use, like 21st birthdays, spring break, and housing and roommates. Each page has a section on why the topic is important and a little bit of the research related to that topic, followed by two sections called “Say this” and “Not this”.
At the Maryland Collaborative, we believe that scientific evidence should guide decision-making rather than anecdote or opinion. Accordingly, the information that you will find in this website is informed by science. Some of the evidence might surprise you. For instance, scientific studies during the last decade have confirmed that exposure to alcohol during high school increases the chances of heavy drinking during college. There is very little evidence to back up the “forbidden fruit theory” or the popular opinion that families should supervise drinking to avoid problems later. Hosting a party where teens can “learn to drink” under the watchful eye of a well-intentioned family member might seem like a good idea, but on the contrary, the science is clear that when they get to college, such teens are at high risk for heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems.
What you said or did during your student’s high school years matters, but your communication continues to matter now and going forward. It’s never too late to learn new strategies, or try a new approach based on what you learn here. We encourage you to give us feedback about what you learn here and what you would like to see.
In addition to being scientists, our team also includes parents. Like you, we strive to guide our kids to make good decisions and help them avoid alcohol and other substance use problems. That is why we are so passionate about translating scientific studies into practical information that families can use—like when they need to make a tough decision or start a difficult conversation.
Thank you for all you do as a family member! We congratulate you on how far you’ve brought your young person already. We hope this website is useful to you, and we look forward to hearing from you.
Amelia Arria, Ph.D.
Director, Center on Young Adult Health and Development (CYAHD)
Professor, Department of Behavioral and Community Health
University of Maryland School of Public Health
College Park, MD 20742
Amelia Arria, Ph.D.
Amelia is co-leading the Maryland Collaborative, directs the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and is also a Professor in the Department of Behavioral and Community Health. Her research has focused on the risk and resiliency factors associated with mental health and substance use problems among adolescents and young adults. Her most recent work has clarified the impact of substance use, particularly excessive drinking and marijuana use, on academic achievement. She was the Principal Investigator of the NIDA-funded prospective College Life Study, which annually assessed the behavioral health of 1253 college students through their young adult years. She has authored more than 185 scientific peer-reviewed publications, numerous white papers and book chapters, and is the recipient of several major grant awards from foundations and state and federal agencies. Much of her work has direct relevance to parents, communities, educational professionals, and policymakers. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University, a PhD in Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh and postdoctoral training in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.
Special thanks to...
Dr. Marc Fishman, MD, Jen Lavender-Thompson, Rebecca Kurikeshu, the team at the Center on Young Adult Health and Development, and the numerous parents and college students who provided feedback on website content.
Funding for this website was provided by the Maryland Department of Health through the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems.