Here in the midst of the holiday season, many of us find ourselves at celebrations with friends and family where the consumption of alcohol is involved. These are particularly important events for members of College Parents of America, because they are opportunities to impart lessons of responsibility to the young people in our families.

These lessons can apply whether your child is still in high school, or just home for winter break from college. We advise you to take advantage of this time to talk with your sons and daughters about the impact of high-risk drinking on their lives, and about their responsibilities, not only to themselves, but also to their peers.

First, a disclaimer. I do drink socially, almost exclusively beer and wine, with an occasional Blood Mary at a Sunday brunch. However, I respect those who choose not to drink and I strongly support the upholding of alcohol-related laws.

Alcohol laws today are different than when you and I were of college age. Growing up in Michigan, in the 1970s, I became “legal” when I was still a senior in high school. Going away to school in Illinois, I became “legal” again, as that state had a minimum age of 19 for beer and wine and 21 for “hard liquor.”

Today, of course, 21 is the law of the land, but not necessarily the convention of our society. While studies show that alcohol consumption is down among young people, it is realistic to expect that our children will be put into situations, perhaps in high school and certainly in college, where not only is alcohol available, but the peer pressure to consume it will be enormous.

In cooperation with William DeJong, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, and Linda Devine, assistant dean of student life at the University of Oregon, we at College Parents of America have developed the following eight talking points to assist you in talking with a young person about alcohol. They are:

  1. Set clear and realistic expectations regarding academic performance. Here the connection is simple – studies show the greater the partying, the lower the grades. If young people are devoted to their studies, they will have less time to get in trouble with alcohol.
  2. Stress that alcohol is toxic and that excess consumption can poison a person. This is not a scare tactic; excessive drinking can be very dangerous, even life-threatening. Parents should discourage dangerous drinking and ask their children to have the courage to intervene early if they see another student starting to put his or her life at risk.
  3. Tell students to call for help if a fellow student is in jeopardy. In some cases, your student might be put in a situation where a peer is already at a point of high risk. Please emphasize to them that they should call for appropriate help, even though they might fear of getting the fellow student in trouble.
  4. Tell students to stand up for their right to a safe academic environment. Here again, peer pressure can be daunting. However, if study time is interrupted or others make unwanted sexual advances, due to the consumption of alcohol, students should confront those issues directly with the offenders, and then, if that fails, notify appropriate campus officials.
  5. Get to know the alcohol scene on campus and talk to students about it. Studies have shown that students grossly exaggerate the use of alcohol and other drugs by their peers, perhaps to justify their own behavior as “the norm.” Don’t fall for that. Find out from school officials and other parents what realistic expectations you should have about alcohol use on your son or daughter’s campus.
  6. Avoid tales of drinking exploits from your own college years. Many of us have our stories of drinking back in “the good old days.” I’m sure they are entertaining, but keep them to yourselves. All those stories do is appear to give parental approval to dangerous alcohol consumption.
  7. Encourage your student to volunteer in community work. This is an adjunct to the point regarding academic performance, with the underlying theme being that students who are busy learning, honing job-related skills and staying connected with their campus, are far less likely to veer off and begin developing dangerous alcohol-consumption habits.
  8. Make it clear – underage alcohol consumption and alcohol-impaired driving are against the law. This is probably the most important point of all. Parents should tell their children that they do not condone breaking the law. You should openly and forcefully express disapproval of underage drinking and driving while under the influence. If you drink yourself, you should present a positive role model in the positive role model in the responsible use of alcohol.

As Mr. DeJong and Ms. Devine put it: “Talk with your student about alcohol. While parents may not be able to actively monitor students away from home, they can be available to talk and listen, and that is just as important. It can do more than help shape lives, it can save lives.”

Enjoy the remainder of the holiday season.

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