off_to_collegeSending kids off to college can be a frightening time for parents. If you’ve been to the university yourself, you know all about the drunken parties and not-so-safe choices college students make while under-the-influence. And whether you’ve had the college experience yourself or not, you’ve probably heard the horror stories of substance abuse and the terrible things that can happen to kids who might be a little naïve about the consequences of their choices.

What do you say to your kids?

Here are seven topics of conversation to bring up, and bits of advice to give, before and during the college experience that might make talking about decision-making more comfortable for you and your university-age kids. Remember, conversation is a two-way street, so listen as much if not more than you talk.

1)      Binge drinking is more dangerous than you think. While studies show that students equate binge drinking with social popularity and power, binge drinking also leads to unforeseen negative consequences, including but not limited to: bad hook-ups, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, poor reputation, missed classes, inability to show up for work, etc. If you are going to drink, drink with friends and have a plan for getting home safely. Do not deviate from the plan and do not leave your friends. There’s less chance to make poor choices if you are with others.

2)      Marijuana is not as safe as you’ve come to believe. Just because something was OK in the 1960s doesn’t mean that it’s still safe today. Not only is marijuana much stronger than it was more than fifty years ago when all the talk about it being a “safe” and “natural” drug began, but we know a lot more about marijuana’s effects on the brain than we used to. The human brain continues to develop up until the age of 25. Using marijuana, even infrequently, causes permanent changes to the brain, including muted impulse control and harm to memory. Getting stoned today and studying for your exam tomorrow is counterproductive; learning and getting stoned are not activities that go together.

3)      Synthetic marijuana is REALLY not safe. If you’re going to stay away from any drug, stay away from this one. It’s popular because it’s “legal,” but what it really is, is plant substance that has been sprayed with chemicals that are “like” THC. These chemicals are made in China where there is no safety regulation. What’s on the package may not be what’s in the substance. When it says, “not for human consumption,” believe it. This stuff is literally poison. Please do not take it. Ever.

4)      Prescription drugs are not performance enhancing. Here’s the deal – you don’t need Ritalin if you don’t put off studying for an exam or writing a paper till the last minute. Instead of taking medication to help you focus, learn time management skills. College isn’t about acing a particular exam, it’s about having experiences and learning skills that will help you for the rest of your life. Forgo the Ritalin and take a B. Next time, study earlier.

5)      The consequences of your actions stay with you forever. Yes, you might get away with driving drunk once or you might not. Your friend who wants to go off with that guy she just met might get home ok, or she might never be heard from again. What can you live with? Stay alert and make the best decisions you can.

6)      Learn a work/play balance. Part of the college experience is to learn to balance work and play. That’s a life-skill that needs to be developed by everyone. Study as much as you need to, but also take time to have fun. Learn to enjoy moments with friends. Cultivate activities that you enjoy. Make your life meaningful by giving back and volunteering. Study abroad. Join a club or a Greek organization. Getting loaded in your “free” time wastes opportunities you will never have again.

7)      Sleep. Students are often so focused on success that they don’t get enough sleep. Learn to balance and to incorporate healthy lifestyle activities from exercise to good nutrition to sleep into your daily schedule.

Contributor: Constance Scharff is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research for Cliffside Malibu. She is also the coauthor of the bestselling book Ending Addiction for Good with Richard Taite.