Published: July 17, 2023

For many students, college represents a major step into adulthood. Talking to our students about alcohol and drug use can help them reflect on their relationships with substances and clarify what choices are right for them.

Family members are a crucial support system for student success. It’s important to have open and ongoing dialogue with your student about important issues like substance use.

Approaching the topic of substance use through a non-judgmental conversation with your student can help when it comes to the choices they make and knowing when to seek help for themselves or others. Here are some communication tips to consider:

  •  Listen first. Allow your student to share their perspective and experience without interruption or judgment. The more your student feels heard, the more likely they are to open up and continue the conversation about this and other difficult topics. Try asking open-ended questions to get your student talking and truly understand their perspective.

  • Explore why students may use substances. Students may choose to experiment with alcohol and other drugs for a variety of reasons—expectations about their college experience, party culture, peer pressure, boredom, stress relief, coping, etc. Consider these reasons when planning your conversation and think of alternative activities that your student could engage in. Recognizing that there are some ‘positive’ reasons students may choose to use substances can help you put those into perspective.

  • Emphasize support. If your student becomes defensive or feels like they’re being lectured, refocus the conversation around common goals you both share. For instance, you both want your student to be healthy, safe and successful at CU.
    You can also help your student identify what they are passionate about and what they want to accomplish. When they are engaged in something meaningful, they are more likely to prioritize those commitments and goals and less likely to let alcohol and other drugs become something that gets in the way of those goals.

  • Be prepared for possible resistance. It’s important to be prepared that they may initially be reluctant to engage in the conversation. They may be afraid of getting in trouble or feel as though they’ve already heard everything there is to hear about alcohol or other drugs. It can also help to prepare for disagreements. Remember, not everyone will react how we expect or think they should react. Many of our students are trying to adjust to a significant amount of change over a short period of time.

    If you notice the conversation is getting tense or unproductive, take a break and revisit it later. Allow your student time to breathe and reflect. You can always come back to the conversation once everyone has had time to cool off. The most important thing is to stay open to listening to your student—the conversations will likely build and deepen over time. For more tips, check out our How to navigate important conversations with your student” article

Support resources

CU Boulder has a variety of resources to support both students and families.