Here are a few conversational do's and don'ts to keep in mind:
Do: Prompt and encourage questions
You'll first want to determine your student's baseline knowledge of alcohol and drugs. A great way of doing so is through scenario-based questions. Your student's answers will give you a good guide to how they may react when put in a new situation. If they don't have an answer upfront, this is an excellent opportunity to provide guidance on how they might navigate the scenario.
Start off your conversation with hypothetical scenario questions like:
- What role do you think alcohol/cannabis/other drugs will play in your college experience?
- What will you do if you find yourself at a party with only alcohol to drink?
- What will you do if your roommate drinks/consumes drugs and your room becomes a center for this activity?
- What will you do if you find a student passed out in the bathroom and/or how would you handle caring for someone who is intoxicated?
- How will you decide whether you want to consume alcohol/drugs or not?
- What could be the possible consequences if you choose to consume alcohol/drugs?
Your student will also have their own questions and be curious about your experiences growing up. They may ask you questions like:
- Did you drink at my age?
- Did you ever use drugs at parties?
- If it was okay for you to do it, why can’t I?
- Did your friends ever pressure you to try drugs/alcohol?
- You drink alcohol now. It can’t be that dangerous, right?
- Are prescription drugs safe? My friends at school use them and they are legal.
- Can I get addicted to drugs/alcohol if I do it just once in a while?
When answering these questions, be honest and straightforward with your student. Chances are they will know if you’re not telling the truth. Explain your decisions and experiences and share what you would have done differently.
Don’t: Judge too quickly.
Your first conversation will set a precedent for future conversations around drugs and alcohol. You want your student to feel comfortable talking to you without fear of harsh judgment. Even if you disapprove of their choices, try not to show that you are upset, your reaction will set the tone. You’ll find that the more open you are, the more willing your student is to share their perspective.
On the other hand, don’t take the topic of drugs and alcohol too lightly. Laughing off substance usage and writing it off as typical college student behavior sends the wrong message and may even encourage them to participate in substance use more often.
Do: Talk about family history
Discussing family history surrounding alcoholism or drug addiction can be a very emotional and difficult topic to approach. However, according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, studies show that genetic factors can contribute to up to half of a person’s susceptibility. Although environmental factors also come into play with substance abuse, your student should be aware if addiction runs in your family. Becoming more mindful of family history will help your student make more informed decisions when faced with alcohol and drugs.
Don’t: Rush the conversation
Keep an open dialogue with one another and plan your conversation for a relaxed time when you can both listen to each other. This isn’t a conversation that should be had as you are running out the door to go somewhere. Take your student out to lunch, a long walk in the park, or another low-intense activity where you can sit and talk and listen to each other.
Do: Set clear & realistic expectations
Explain to your student that constant partying will have a direct impact on your student’s academic life. Alcohol and/or drug abuse is more likely to cause your student to study less, miss more classes, have a lower GPA, and even prevent them from graduating. From the start, you want to make clear expectations of what consequences might be in store for poor grades or for any encounters with law enforcement.
Don’t: Keep pressing forward when conflict arises
You have to recognize that conflict may come up in your discussion with your student. Rather than seeing it as a negative, take it as an opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences. If you find yourself debating back and forth and your student is becoming defensive, try approaching things from a different angle. Instead of using “you” (“You” need to…) statements, use “I” statements (“I” am concerned about..). Using “I” statements will help the conversation be calmer and your student less on the defensive side.
If things are getting heated, take a pause. Don’t push through the discussion if you find it unproductive. A break will allow you and your student to digest information and come back feeling more levelheaded.
Do: Check in with your student on a regular basis
This is not a one-time conversation. Throughout the academic year, check in with your student. You’ll find that being available to talk and listen will go a long way in forming a trusting bond with their student. Be sure to ask questions like:
- How are you settling in?
- What are your classes and teachers like?
- Have you been to any parties?
- Have you tried going to any activities on campus?
- Do you feel overwhelmed at all?
- Can we do anything to help?