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Preparing Teens for the Challenges of College

Upset teen girl with head facing the stress of college  

Sending a teen to college represents the culmination of 18 years of parenting. Parents can face uncertainty as they send their teenagers away for school. Will their child be able to face the college challenges presented to them, or will they struggle with substance abuse like many college students do?

Preparing a teen for college can seem like an enormous undertaking, but by taking the time to learn about the challenges college students face, parents can feel confident in sending their child away to college.

Preparing Teens for Exposure to Drugs and Alcohol

Many teens are exposed to drug use in college. Substance use and underage drinking in college exist in nearly every off-campus social event.

Since a parent cannot prevent their teen from having contact with alcohol or drugs, they can concentrate on offering:

  • Information. Parents should educate their kids about drugs and alcohol. Explain what they are, why people are interested in them and the likely outcomes of use. Teens who don’t know the risks of drugs are likely to become more curious about them.
  • Support. Going to college is a stressful time for students. Parents who offer love and support can help create a relationship free from judgment and negativity. The emotional support from parents can be enough to keep a teen from turning to substances in times of stress.
  • Guidance. Teens are bound to make mistakes, but a parent can offer gentle guidance to help the teen get back on course.

With this assistance, the student will be in a better position to make healthy choices while keeping the parent-child relationship strong.

Managing Peer Pressure

Peer pressure in college an expected challenge, though teens will have likely faced similar challenges throughout high school. Continuing resisting social pressure is a key component to staying healthy in college. Parents can start teaching their teens how to continue overcoming peer pressure in college by using examples from their high school days. By applying similar situations to the college setting, they can help their children identify, combat and avoid peer pressure.

Alcohol Use in College

Alcohol abuse in college students occurs frequently. With the new independence that comes with leaving home, the lure of alcohol entices many college students to start or continue alcohol use.

Full-time college students between the ages of 18 and 22 show rates of alcohol use that are higher than any other population, with 58% of full-time college students drinking alcohol.

While full-time college students are more likely than other groups to drink, they are also more likely than other groups to binge drink and drink heavily. The dangers of binge drinking should be made clear to a teenager before they leave for college.

Underage Drinking

Drinking alcohol as a teenager is problematic because the effects of underage drinking are severe. The consequences of underage drinking include:

  • Troubled relationships
  • Poor academic performance
  • Increased mental and physical health issues

Underage drinking statistics point toward a problem that begins before college for many students. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), among 17-year-olds surveyed:

  • Nearly 23% reported drinking in the previous month
  • About 12.5% admitted to current binge drinking behaviors

Waiting to address underage drinking until someone goes to college may be too late.

Binge Drinking

Experts define binge drinking as anytime a male consumes five or more drinks and when a female has four or more drinks. There is a rampant culture of binge drinking in college campuses across the country. Almost 38% of college students report binge drinking.

Another similar issue is “heavy drinking” among college students, which is when someone binge drinks five or more days per month. About 12.5% of college students admit to heavy drinking with men being more likely than women to be heavy drinkers.

Drunk Driving

According to SAMHSA, each year, 1,800 college students die from alcohol-related issues and 600,000 college students experience injuries while under the influence of alcohol. Teen drunk driving and college student drunk driving statistics include:

  • 10% of teens drink and drive
  • Drivers ages 16 to 20 are 17 times more likely to die if they have been drinking than drivers of other age groups

College students should be encouraged to use designated drivers or ride-sharing services to avoid drinking and driving.

How You Can Help Teens Avoid the Impact of Alcohol Use

There are multiple ways to help a college student manage the impact of alcohol, including:

  • Educating them about the risks of alcohol abuse
  • Teaching them how to deal with college stress
  • Providing alcohol addiction help on campus

Drug Use In College

Like alcohol use, substance abuse in college is widespread. Some students are interested in so-called “smart drugs” for college to aid their academic performance while others are looking to experiment or reduce stress through substance use.

Common drugs used by college students include:

  • Marijuana
  • Prescription drugs
  • Cocaine
  • Hallucinogens
  • Heroin


In colleges, marijuana is the most popular and widely-used drug. Whether students are smoking weed in college or experimenting with dab concentrate, almost 22% of college students report using marijuana.

Among college students, marijuana use is linked to:

  • Going to parties
  • Increased socialization
  • Spending less time studying

Some people believe that as schools work hard to crack down on alcohol use on campus, marijuana has emerged as a replacement. However, not enough evidence supports that claim.

Prescription Drugs

After marijuana, abusing prescription drugs is the second most common form of drug misuse among college students. Teen prescription drug abuse and misuse happens with students:

  • Taking more of the medicine than recommended
  • Sharing prescription drugs
  • Using the prescription for a use other than its intended use
  • Mixing the medication with other drugs to create a different result

More than 5% of college students abuse:

  • Opioid pain medications
  • Tranquilizers and sedatives like benzodiazepines
  • Stimulant medications like those used to treat attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

The ADHD medications are frequently used prescription drugs because they are easy to obtain. Adderall use in college students is common as they believe “study drugs” can help their academics.

Party Drugs

Party drugs only make up a small share of college issues. Examples of party drugs include:

  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy/MDMA
  • Ketamine
  • Hallucinogens, like LSD

Ecstasy abuse and cocaine use in college continue to be problematic despite their lower rates of use. Even though less than 2% of college students use cocaine, parents and students need to know the dangers of party drugs.

How You Can Help Teens Avoid Drug Abuse

Helping your child with drug use starts with prevention. Open and clear communication with your teen gives them the information they need to make informed decisions during their college career. Talking to teens about drugs, the side effects of party drugs and the dangers of using illegal drugs can make a difference.

If prevention has been ineffective, work with the college to understand what resources they offer students and parents of students who are experiencing problems related to drug use. Even if your child is far away, find methods to visit and build a sense of closeness to keep the relationship intact.

Emotional Management Preparation

Parents often focus on the academic rigors of college. Although this aspect is important, their teen’s emotional readiness for college may be more influential. Without the ability to regulate their feelings effectively, a teen will struggle in other aspects of college life beyond academics.

To help with the emotional adjustment of college students, you can:

  • Work to identify and label feelings within yourself and within them
  • Model appropriate feelings and reactions at home
  • Engage them in conversations about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors
  • Make yourself available for conversations whenever needed
  • Teach them how to ask for help when they need it

New Relationships

College students will have the opportunity for countless college relationships. Teens may seem reluctant to receive college relationship advice from their mom or dad, so it’s important to talk to them when they’re comfortable to avoid forcing the conversation and detering their attention.

A teen can navigate new relationships in college by:

  • Staying true to their values and beliefs
  • Trying to interact with a variety of people, rather than solely focusing on a few
  • Feeling comfortable exploring new activities and experiences while maintaining a need for safety
  • Choosing to be around people who value and respect their thoughts and feelings

By reinforcing these concepts, parents can guide their teens toward healthy and rewarding relationships in college and beyond.

Practical Skills

A great way to ensure a teen is prepared for the challenges college students face is by teaching them college success skills. Sometimes the skills may seem overly abstract, so focusing on practical skills can help connect the student to the goal.

Doing something as simple as creating a college preparation checklist can be helpful. Instead of making the list physical items the student needs, like pens and notebooks, make a list of skills they need in college like:

  • Sound communication skills
  • A good sense of direction to avoid getting lost on campus
  • Money management skills
  • Ways to find a balance between work, studying and having fun

A parent may not have enough time to help their child perfect these practical skills, but working on them before leaving for school can give the student a head start.

Time Management

Perhaps the most valuable practical skill is time management. Developing strong time management skills is essential because college students are frequently pulled between academic and social endeavors. Some students may find balancing the two difficult.

Before their children go to college, a parent can help by giving them small-time management challenges at home, observe how they do and then discuss the results when completed. When the teen is at school, a parent can start a friendly conversation about how their child is spending their day to assess their college study skills and have them gauge their time management ability.

Sexual Abuse in College

College students must also face the risk of sexual assault on college campuses. Everyone is at risk of sexual violence on college campuses.

According to statistics on sexual assault in college compiled by RAINN:

  • 11% of all students experience sexual assault
  • 23% of females and 5.4% of males experience sexual assault
  • Only 20% of females reported their incident
  • More than 4% of college students experience stalking

How You Can Help Teens Prevent Sexual Assault

Many parents want to know how to prevent sexual assault while their child is at college and ways to improve college student safety. Like with other areas, the best coping skills for teens involve college sexual assault prevention.

Talk to your teen about:

  • Staying in groups to avoid isolation when out socializing
  • Establishing a safety plan when walking at night
  • Protecting their food and drink from being tampered with at bars or clubs
  • Meeting with the campus safety department to review ways to stay safe

Parents should also let their children know that sexual assault is common, and there is no reason to feel ashamed or responsible for the terrible actions of the perpetrator. If a problem arises, parents should always support their child and encourage them to report the crime.

Eating Disorders in College

Eating disorders are most common for women in their teens and early twenties. Eating disorders in college students can derail academic and social success while creating numerous physical and psychological effects.

The most common eating disorders among college students will include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Each of these conditions have strong genetic and environmental components, meaning the teen could experience an eating disorder caused by stress or biological traits passed down from family members.

How You Can Help Teens Avoid Eating Disorders

When people have eating disorders or eating disorder symptoms, they tend to become invested in maintaining a level of secrecy with their status. They are unlikely to openly announced their condition, how long it has been in place and how intense it is.

Because of this, parents must be cautious while looking for subtle signs and cues that their teen is exhibiting disordered eating. Speaking to their friends and roommates can be a good way to assess the situation and identify a problem.

Since eating disorders sometimes come from high stress, talking to your child about coping skills for teens or stress management techniques for college students could stop the problem before it develops. At the same time, focusing on healthy eating habits for college students can serve as a guide to direct their diet and nutrition.

Eating disorders are serious mental health conditions, so if you suspect your child has a disorder, it is best to make the school aware and seek out professional mental health treatment for the condition. A problem this dangerous needs professional interventions.

How to Recognize Signs of Substance Abuse

Recognizing the signs of substance abuse is complicated enough, even when you see the person each day. Having your child away at college makes it harder to see the signs they are becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol.

When you suspect your teen is misusing alcohol or other drugs, look for:

  • Changes to their relationships
  • Changes in their diet or weight
  • Changes in their energy, motivation and sleep habits
  • A decline in grades and academic performance
  • Poor self-care
  • An inability to manage finances and asking for money
  • Experiencing problems with the law
  • An increase in mental health or physical health problems
  • Inconsistent or unstable moods

Since your teen is living away from home, you’ll have limited opportunities to observe their behaviors and appearance. With this being true, you will have to rely on their report of the college experience as well as the consistency and content of phone calls.

If your child is calling less often, seems distracted or secretive over the phone, it could be a sign of alcohol addiction or drug addiction. Remember, though, the transition to college is challenging, and the changes you note could be a normal part of the process.

Focus on gathering as much information as you can to assess their status and use their friends as ways to confirm or disprove any addiction problems.

When Treatment is Necessary

When all of the information you receive points toward your student having a substance use disorder, it is time to seek out professional treatment. Specialized addiction treatment can do a lot to stop the influence of substances and help your child regain their motivation and direction in life.

If your teen struggle with substance use, contact Next Generation Village to speak with a representative about how professional addiction treatment can help. Your teen deserves a healthy college experience, call today.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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