Although it might not always feel like they listen or care for your perspective, talking to your college student about things like substance use is important. Substance use is considered a major health concern on college campuses and it has been found that parental influence is associated to the frequency of its use (Jurick, Moulding, & Naujokaitis, 2013).

Research suggests that students value the time spent talking to their parents or guardians while they are away at college and report the interactions to be helpful during times that are stressful (Small, Morgan, Abar, & Maggs, 2011). When it comes to drugs and alcohol, that influence is especially significant in their health behavior-related decision making. According to recent studies focusing on college populations, 84% of students take their parents’ rules and expectations about alcohol use seriously, and an even greater number consider parental expectations for other drugs (ACHA, 2015). Students who report having a greater bond with their parents report lower alcohol use (Jurick, Moulding & Naujokaitis, 2013, and Small et al., 2011).

Even after graduation and moving to college, the amount of time you spend communicating with your student while apart counts. Students who reported communicating with their parent(s) or guardians for more than 30 minutes per week reported consuming 20% fewer drinks (Small et al., 2011). It is clear that even into adulthood, and even from across the city, state, or country, parental influence plays a huge role in health-related decision making of college students.

Talking Points to Get You Started

8 Common Talking Points for Parents/Guardians Speaking with Students About Alcohol

  1. Set clear and realistic expectations regarding academic performance. Students respect their parents' or guardians' thoughts and value their expectations. Students are more likely to focus on their studies if they know their parents have expectations of them. The University’s expectations can be found in the Student Handbook.
  2. Communicate to students that alcohol and drugs are dangerous and sometimes lethal. Regular consumption can have negative effects on their brain development and excessive consumption can cause death. This is a fact, not a scare tactic. You’re here to learn: take care of your brain.
  3. Tell students to intervene when friends are in trouble with alcohol. Encourage your student to intervene if they witness excessive drinking or any drug use by friends. Express how tragic it is to lose class members from substance-related events or behaviors.
  4. Tell students to stand up for their right to a safe academic environment. Discuss things like interrupted study time and how sexual and physical assault can still occur to those who are not using drugs or alcohol. It is important to let your student know how they can discuss these issues with resident hall assistants and others on campus.
  5. Know the alcohol scene on campus and talk to your student about it. Perceived drinking and drug use rates are almost always higher than the actual use by college students. Since students are easily influenced by their peers, it is important for your student to know this.
  6. Avoid romanticized tales of drinking exploits from your own college years. Open, honest conversations are important, but embellishing your own stories from your glory days can normalize risky drinking behavior, depending on the story, of course. Be honest. Be open. Be real.
  7. Encourage your student to get engaged. Join a club, team, or organization on campus. Volunteer in community work. This will help your student gain additional job-related skills, gain memorable experiences, network, and fill your student's time with productive activities and decrease the likelihood of risky behaviors.
  8. Make it clear. Underage alcohol consumption, any illegal drug use, and alcohol-impaired driving are against the law and against university policy. Be a positive role model. Show/discuss your expectations to your student about substance use.

Overcoming barriers to communication

Talking about substance use with your college student can help them develop healthy habits and keep them safe. We know that college students whose parents communicate warmth and affection, set and reinforce consistent expectations for behavior, monitor where and with whom their adult child is, and support them as they develop social skills and competencies tend to initiate alcohol use at later ages and engage in less problematic substance use patterns, even in college (Small et al., 2011). 

It may feel like your kid isn't listening or doesn't care what you have to say but it's worth it to keep talking.  Here are some tips for overcoming common barriers to having these conversations with your loved ones:

  • Schedule calls with your college student to check in and catch up. Choose times, duration, and frequencies that you all can agree on, and make a family commitment to stick to them.
  • Take advantage of everyday “teachable moments.” Use every day events in your own life to explore things you’d like your child to know about. Some examples might include conflicts with a spouse or another child (interpersonal communication), challenges at work, and experiences of other family members, friends or community members. The aim is not to judge or to focus on the negative or tough things in life, but to open up a conversation about topics you’d like to talk about with your college student.
  • Use newspaper headlines or TV news stories as conversation starters. Every day we see things in the news related to drug and alcohol misuse, from individuals getting arrested, to drug enforcement, to U.S. policy. Maybe your student is taking a political science class and you can discuss the role of the movement of drugs into and out of the United States with regards to U.S. Foreign and Immigration policy. Maybe your student is studying sports science and you can open up a conversation about the impact drugs and alcohol have on physical performance.
  • Ask thought-provoking, open-ended questions. (More details available below.)
  • Be prepared for your student to ask you about your drinking habits and experiences. Even if you feel that your child is pushing against the conversation by asking you about your habits, be prepared to answer their questions honestly. Exploring your own experiences in an open way will help you share with your students the things you learned, sometimes the hard way.
  • Don’t be quick to judge or to jump to conclusions. You are asking open questions of your child. Allow them to be heard without judgment. If it helps, remind yourself to ask at least TWO additional clarifying questions with regards to something your student shares with you that you may find upsetting. This will allow them to further explain their perspective, and give you time to calm yourself and remember that this is about helping your college student make the best decisions they can.
  • Don’t force it. If your college student doesn’t want to talk about it, don’t press the issue. Just communicate that you care about this aspect of their lives, and you’re here to help. The willingness to back off shows that you respect your adult child’s privacy and desire to be independent.

Goal = understanding

Open conversations are characterized by respect, appropriate body language, keeping an open mind, and intentional listening. Conversation is the common goal leading to a deeper understanding of the issues of the world, and of one another. Use the following tips to set up a constructive, open conversation with your college student about substance use.

  • Keep an open mind. Even though it may go against all of your being, you do not know in detail the answers to the questions you are going to ask. Keep an open mind and allow your college student to share their perspective. Do not assume.
  • Listen. Listen with all your might. When you have heard, ask more questions to clarify before you try to move the conversation. Listening will open the door to a real conversation with your adult child.
  • Use open questions, and reflect back answers to show you are truly hearing your student. No one likes to be told how to live, and most people do like to talk about themselves when they are truly being listened to.
    • Open Questions List:
      • Tell me about how you felt when your roommate asked you to drink alcohol with her/him?
      • What is your personal philosophy with regards to drugs and alcohol while you’re at school?
      • Tell me about a time when you had to make a decision with regards to doing drugs or alcohol.
      • How did you navigate that conversation with your roommate? How did you navigate that situation?
      • What can we do to support you?
      • How can we talk about this in a way that feels more comfortable?
      • What are your thoughts about your fellow students using alcohol? Marijuana? Prescription drugs? Illicit drugs?
      • How would your life be different in college if you didn’t use substances?
      • Describe a time when…
      • Tell me about how…
      • What would happen if...
  • Ask thought provoking/critical thinking questions. Your adult child is a college student. They are steeped everyday in an environment built on expanding their knowledge, challenging their perceptions, and broadening their experiences and horizons! Be a part of the learning process and engage with the new knowledge and opinions your child is developing. Challenge their perceptions as well as your own.
  • Choose your battles wisely. You will not always agree. You will not always like what you hear from your college student. If you want to be able to have open conversations, arguing may not be helpful. Use your leadership skills to explore experiences related to alcohol and drugs, and how to react to potential experiences from a place of support, love, and caring while you maintain your integrity and connections to your own personal and family values and expectations. Sometimes this means calmly changing topics.

Risky drinking at college

Each student at UWL is an adult, operating as an autonomous unit fully in charge of their own future. We empower our students to make the best decisions for themselves. Sometimes college students decide to drink alcohol, use drugs, or engage in other risky behaviors, and we know illegal alcohol and drug use are problems on college campuses all across the U.S. Each year, over 1,800 college students die as a result of alcohol or drug-related unintentional injuries (National Institutes of Health, 2015). Risky drinking by college students can lead to arrest, conduct violations on campus, lowered academic performance, sexual assault, legal action, alcoholism or addiction, injury, property damage, unplanned and unsafe sexual activity, and even death. Risky drug or alcohol use and binge drinking represent a great danger to our students' success as well as their personal health. As such, we focus on harm and risk reduction by empowering our students to make value-based decisions with regards to alcohol.

Here are some of the basic messages we communicate for harm and risk reduction with regards to alcohol and drug use:

  • Use the buddy system.
  • Never drink alone.
  • Be with groups of people that you trust.
  • Never mix drugs and alcohol (even prescriptions from your doctor).
  • Eat healthy, well-balanced meals and drink water.
  • Know what one standard drink is and how many you’ve had. Know your limit.
  • Plan your night: Where are you going? Who are you going with? How many drinks are you going to have? How are you getting home?
  • If there is a car involved, designate a driver. Never drive or ride with someone under the influence of a substance.
  • Understand the Responsible Action Policy: if someone you are with has had too much, or may be in harm's way from the actions of others or themselves, call 911 or the UW Police. Stay with that person, be honest and respectful to the emergency responder and you will not get an underage drinking ticket.
  • Understand the consequences. Underage drinking and any illicit drug use are illegal. If detected, these behaviors are punishable by law, and will also draw consequences as violations of the Student Code of Conduct by the university. Your behaviors, your choices, your future.

Alcohol use patterns among college students at UWL

Alcohol is widely regarded as the most misused and misunderstood drug in our society (Turrisi, 2010). It is the most common “date rape drug,” and a significant impactor in the success of college students across the U.S. Much of the insight about college drug and alcohol use at UWL comes from the American College Health Association’s (ACHA) National College Health Assessment II (NCHA II) survey which we do every three years. With this information, coupled with the knowledge we get from student accounts, personal conversations, arrest and incident reports, and active college students wanting to make a change, we achieve a comprehensive understanding of our problem, which informs the actions we take to address it. These statistics inform our approach to alcohol and other drug prevention, education and intervention at UWL. All data is drawn from the NCHA II Survey published in March of 2015.

  • Within the last twelve months, 6.3% of students at UW-L reported alcohol use as a factor negatively affecting their academic performance
  • Within the last twelve months, 1.2% of students at UW-L reported drug use as a factor negatively affecting their academic performance
  • Actual usage: 76.3% of students report any alcohol use during the last 30 days (Perceived usage: 96.9%- people think everyone is drinking)
  • Actual usage: 15.8% of students report any marijuana use during the last 30 days (Perceived usage: 85.4%)
  • Actual usage: 12.7% of students report any other drug* use during the last 30 days (Perceived usage: 75.3%)
  • 1.4 % of UW-L students reported driving after having 5 or more drinks in the last 30 days
  • 20.1 % of UW-L students reported driving after having any alcohol in the last 30 days
  • During the last time they socialized or “partied,” 68.1% students reported an estimated blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of less than 0.10%, just above the legal limit to drive

*Other drugs include cigars, smokeless tobacco as well as illicit and illegally used prescription drugs

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration levels to 0.08g/dL, the legal limit to drink, typically occurring after 4 drinks for biological females and 5 drinks for biological males in about two hours. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least one day during the past thirty days. SAMHSA defines heavy drinking as drinking five or more drinks on the same occasion on each of five or more days during the past thirty days.

Reported number of drinks consumed the last time students "partied" or socialized.
Number of Drinks Total (%)
4 or fewer 49.8
5 15.0
6 10.1
7 25.1


Reported number of times college students consumed five or more drinks in a sitting within the last two weeks.
Number of times college students consumed five or more drinks in a sitting Total (%)
N/A I don’t drink 15.3
None 39.1
1-2 times 30.5
3-5 times 12.9
6 or more times 2.2 
Special considerations: Facets of peer pressure and perceived social norms

Peer pressure influences the way your college student makes their decisions. It can be direct or indirect, active or passive. It can also be influenced by perceived social norms. Peer pressure is strong as college students transition into their full-time academic careers, but it isn’t the only thing guiding your adult child’s decision making. You have instilled values, beliefs and attitudes in your college student: have faith in the foundation you have laid.

  • “Active social influence” occurs when a friend explicitly suggests or invites your college student to engage in a certain behavior like binge drinking, using drugs, drinking to pass out or black out, or be sexually active. These are verbal and nonverbal cues to engage, usually direct communication between people or groups of people.
  • "Passive social influence” occurs when your college student thinks everyone else is doing a behavior and it is a socially or culturally acceptable or even required thing to do.

Perceived social norms in college refers to the social phenomenon of interpreting a cultural habit or behavior as universal, even though it isn’t. Though students regularly feel that all of their peers are drinking alcohol, using drugs, and having sex, this isn’t the case, nor has it ever been at UWL or in any college across the country. Many college students choose not to engage in one or any of these things, for many different reasons. Encourage your student to “go with their gut” and make decisions based on their own personal and family values, regardless of what they think everyone else is doing.

Warning signs

Substance use can lead to a variety of serious problems for college students. Knowing and looking for the warning signs of serious problems and intervening when appropriate can prevent some of the devastating consequences of substance misuse. Look for the following red flags with your loved ones, and reach out for help intervening if necessary:

  • Drop in grades or lowered academic achievement
  • Switching friends or social circles
  • Defiance of rules and regulations
  • Mood changes
  • Academic and/or non-academic conduct violations
  • Lack of motivation
  • Reduced self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Quitting or getting fired from a job
  • Reduced self-discipline
  • Never available or reluctant to talk with you
  • Unwilling to talk about activities with friends
  • Recurring underage drinking violations
  • Incidents resulting from high BAC
  • Using multiple pharmacies for prescription refills

Go with your gut. Warning signs of a potential problem should not be dismissed. If you are concerned that your student has a substance-related issue, do not avoid the issue. Discuss your concern calmly. Let your student know you care and want to help. Do not make excuses for your student, but instead empower them to take responsibility for their actions and access the help and support they need. Please contact Student Life, Counseling and Testing, the Student Health Center, or Wellness and Health Advocacy for more information.

What does UWL do to educate students about substance abuse and misuse?

From the first day of START when students come to our campus with their parents to register for classes, through New Student Orientation and all four years of college, UWL provides a consistent message about substance use and conduct expectations for our students and employees. UWL provides many ongoing opportunities for students to become educated about the effects of substance use and misuse, get support for making healthy personal decisions, and help accessing resources they need. Referrals are made to organizations both on and off campus for our students who are struggling with issues related to substance use from legal advocacy, to counseling services, to primary health care and treatment. Setting the standard for many college campuses in the U.S., we use Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) during every alcohol or drug related conduct conversation. We also provide theory-driven and evidence-based education for students in the forms of sanctions, personal wellness programs, continuing education, community building, and personal and community safety. For more information, contact Wellness & Health Advocacy: or 608-785-8977.

Campus and Community Involvement


At UWL, we appreciate the important collaboration we share with the families of our students when it comes to personal decision making. We are in this together. As your student continues to navigate their world and their college experience, we will do our best to support healthy lifestyles by providing health advocacy, health education, and promoting policies that contribute to a culture of wellness at UWL. We will support their autonomy, and we will also ask them to remember the guidelines set forth by the UWL Student Code of Conduct. We also recognize that you are the number one resource for your student, and as such are a member of the UWL community as well.

If you would like to explore more options with regards to talking with your college student about alcohol and drugs, or if you have any questions, please contact the Wellness Coordinator at, 608-785-8977 or check out the rest of our website:

Be Well UWL!