We’re in the thick of the college application process in our house. My high school senior and only child prepped diligently for the SAT, dutifully wrote his essay, completed the common app and a few pesky supplements, and is now awaiting word from just under a dozen colleges regarding his fate come this fall. Serious stuff when you’re 17; even more daunting for mom and dad who are suffering
from a case of tuition sticker shock!
So when a fellow teen safe driving advocate sent me a press release discussing a new survey on risk taking by first-semester college students, I took notice. The research, conducted by the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Central Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna University and SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), found that about a third of teens are experimenting -- many for the first time -- with risky behaviors including drinking alcohol, engaging in intimate sexual behavior or having intercourse during their first semester at college. Of those teens, 26% to 46% reported engaging in these behaviors for the first time with using drugs (besides alcohol) at the top of the list, followed by driving impaired, drinking alcohol and having sex.
I was a college student once and I’ll be the first to admit that I experimented when I went left home for the hallowed halls of academia. But now that I’m a parent, I look back on those days and recognize that some of the risks I took clearly weren’t in my best interest. So how do I help my son, who will soon be exposed to a whole new set of freedoms, make the best choices without stepping on his toes?
The experts say keep talking to your kids. That ongoing dialogue, which I promote through my work as Leader of the New Jersey Teen Safe Driving Coalition, makes a huge difference when it comes to teens and risky behavior. Parents have influence. Our kids look to us, more so than their peers, to help them develop strategies for being safe. What should you talk about? The professionals at CARE, who work with parents, educators, mentors, coaches, and health professionals to address the attitudes and behaviors of teens and young adults, suggest:
- Reflecting with your student on his first-semester experience and what role, if any, alcohol use played in his academic, athletic and/or social performance.
- Pointing out that research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) links college alcohol use with injury, assault, sexual abuse, and depression.
- Emphasizing that many college students build a rewarding social environment without drinking or engaging in other risky behaviors.
- Clearly communicating expectations forresponsible behavior and sound achievement.
- Encouraging on-campus connections with caring adults such as faculty members, coaches, counselors, student affairs or chaplaincy staff.
SADD’s President points out in the press release that not all students are putting themselves at risk. Citing a 2011 Monitoring the Future study, she notes that alcohol consumption among college students has dropped 12% since 1991. Plus, today’s teens and young adults, unlike their parents, are more likely to designate a driver, call a cab or stay the night, rather than get behind the wheel after
drinking. But for those coeds who are drinking and/or using other drugs, parents who set and communicate expectations will help their kids through this critical transition period.
If you’re the parent of a first-year college student, I encourage you, if you’re not already doing so, to talk with your child about these issues. It’s on the top of my college prep list and is certainly more appealing than completing the FAFSA!