Sending young adults to college in this age of addiction and excess can be frightening for parents. Rigid rules about substance use seem unrealistic, yet an attitude that implies a complete flexibility about experimentation with substances is dangerous. Given the seriousness of the risks and the statistical prevalence of substance use disorders on college campuses, experts recommend families discuss the following topics before college:
• Moderate use of alcohol
• The potential risks of marijuana use and street drugs
• Genetic predispositions
• The dangers of prescription medication use and abuse
• What response they can expect from the family should a problem emerge
• Offer of professional help
Early intervention strategies can head off future problems. Professional assistance can help families discern appropriate responses from fearful reactivity, aid in the difficult task of getting on the same page, develop a proactive strategy, and facilitate the difficult conversations with the struggling student.
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Conversations with addicted or impaired students are fraught with pitfalls. Students are often in denial of the problem and can be defensive around the subject. Preparation and perseverance are necessary. When raising the subject the following guidelines are helpful:
• Pick a time when interruptions are unlikely
• Start the conversation with expressions of care and concern
• Explain the basis of your concern; what you have seen, heard and experienced
• Clarify the impact of that behavior on the student and others in the family
• Detail the consequences/healthy boundaries for continued use, i.e. reduction in allowance, removal of automobile, refusal to continue to pay tuition
• Offer help
Refusals to accept offers of help are not uncommon. Parents are often met with stonewalling, bullying, and negotiating. The important thing to remember is to not give up. Addiction gets worse as a student’s use continues and consequences will continue to mount. Professional intercession can be helpful in navigating next steps. It may be time for a professionally facilitated conversation, or interventions, to appropriately address the issue.
Should on-campus or community supports be considered adequate to address the needs of the student, they may still need parental assistance. Locating services and setting up the first appointment will expedite the process. Regardless of parental involvement in making the appointment, it is advisable that parents request or require the student to sign a release of information so that the treating professionals can speak to the parents. Absent a release, parents often remain in the dark about the professional’s opinions and their recommendations for care.
When those on-campus or community supports have proven to be inadequate in addressing the substance abuse and/or when residential treatment is recommended, finding the right program can be difficult to navigate. There is too much information on the Internet and winnowing the truth may be difficult. At this point in the process it is important that parents talk to someone experienced with residential treatment placements. Conversations with addiction specialists, therapists, psychiatrists, and prior treatment program professionals as well as parent groups in the community can be helpful.
Treatment of any addictive disorders, whether treated in the community, on-campus, or at a residential program involves long term planning. This is not a disorder that goes away in a 30 days, regardless of what the program promises. A life in recovery involves changes in goals, friends, lifestyle, and personality. While there is a growing trend on campuses to provide stable sober housing and support systems for students in recovery, most college campuses are dangerous environments for those within the first few years of their recovery.
This does not mean that parents should give up hope that their young adult will be perpetually derailed. Addiction can be a launching pad. Healing brings addicts and alcoholics closer to living life with integrity and self-reflection and often, in service to others. An addicted loved one’s progression from active addiction to recovery will almost always involve the parents.