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Car Talk: Negotiating the New Normal as College Begins

By Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed.

As high school students begin what may seem like an interminable transition to college, changes are in the offing for the entire family. Indeed, every time one family member’s circumstances change, so too do everyone else’s. The at-home family composition changes; roles change; communication patterns change; and sometimes even routines change. And just when it all gets sorted out, the newly minted college student returns for break and throws everything back into disarray!

Why is that important? Because the time between high school graduation and first-year orientation is filled with opportunities for meaningful conversations between young people and their parents, especially when it comes to critical issues related to health and safety.

Sure, these may not be top of mind for the student who is likely to be more concerned with unspoken questions such as, “Will I fit in socially? Will I succeed academically or athletically? Will I be able to live independently?” These are all important considerations and certainly worth discussing with a parent. But more pressing are conversations about risk behaviors such as underage drinking, other drug use and intimate sexual behavior.

A survey of students at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania points to limited dialogue between young people and their parents in the lead up to and during the first year of college. And that’s too bad because the same research, along with a recent study from the Pennsylvania State University, points to the powerful role that parents play in the behavior of their children even after they leave home. This data mirrors more than a decade of original research conducted by the national SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions) organization, emphasizing that, when it comes to risk behaviors, parents are the No. 1 reason why young people make good choices.

Unfortunately, many moms and dads forgo the very type of communication that bends the curve on risk because of a mistaken belief that nothing they say will make a difference. I call this the “myth of inevitability.” For example, more than half of parents—53 percent—say that “drinking is part of growing up and their kids will drink no matter what.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Still others fail to broach sensitive subjects because of inexperience navigating tricky discussions. Some straightforward communication tips can help. For example,

  • Talk at a time that’s convenient for both of you.
  • Talk when you are calm, using “I statements” instead of “you statements.”
  • Express your desire to hear your child’s views.
  • Communicate your wish to relate to each other.
  • Listen carefully.

Parents should feel free to articulate their concerns, such as, “What will life be like without our child at home? Will she fit into this new environment and succeed? What choices will he make about eating, sleeping and exercise?”

Above all else, the imperative lies with keeping young people safe. A 2012 study by Susquehanna’s Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) emphasizes this point: Nationally, approximately one-third of young people experiment with alcohol, drugs and sexual behavior during their first semester of college, many—one-quarter to nearly half—for the first time.

Parents can also help guide their new college students toward safe and healthy decisions by:

  •  Reflecting with their child on what they want out of their first-year college experience, and what role, if any, they think alcohol or other drug use might play in their academic, athletic or social performance.
  •  Pointing out that research 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 risk behaviors.
  •  Clearly communicating expectations for responsible behavior and sound achievement.
  •  Encouraging on-campus connections with caring adults, such as a faculty member, coach, counselor, or member of the student affairs or religious life staff.

Know that, together, parents and their children can successfully negotiate change. And it often begins with some good old-fashioned car talk.


Stephen Wallace, an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is also a senior adviser to SADD and a director at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Massachusetts.


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