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Six Responses When Your College Student is Using Substances

Jul 7, 2020

Since the Covid-19 pandemic sent college students home prematurely and abruptly ended their social time with peers, some parents have begun to see evidence of substance use, perhaps even significant amounts, for the first time in these young adults. No longer able to mask this behavior, the student may have reached a point where a conversation about both substance use and mental health becomes important for them and the whole family. Today, let’s look at six responses for a parent who’s caught off guard by a son’s use of alcohol or drugs.

As the parent of a college student who’s returned home abruptly due to the pandemic, you may have noticed an alarming use of substances (alcohol or drugs) accompanied by signs of mental health concerns. Observing their behaviors while respecting their need for independence before inviting them into a conversation about substance use can be part of a process to gain their trust. When it’s clear a treatment program is the next step, offering your help directly or enlisting the help of a family member or family friend who they trust can be an effective response.

Most parents are unlikely to recognize the signs of a substance use disorder and convince a teen or young adult child to start a treatment program right away. It’s important to see your awareness and potential next steps as a process. Your goal is to protect your child, but you won’t be able to do it on your own without their choice to accept help.

Response 1: Take it all in, and make observations only first.

This level of response is solely for you to gain an understanding of what’s happening with your college-age child since they’ve come home. Watch for substance use, note any changes to sleep patterns or eating habits or ability to concentrate, and be mindful of any communication expressing fears over their health or the health of family members.

Response 2: Look for ways they respond specifically to social isolation.

Your child spent months around peers and friends and now may be on their own or around siblings only. It can be a tough transition to lose many social connections all at once. See what kind of responses to the situation they have: increased social media time, choosing videos/movies/TV over in person time with family members, isolating themselves in their bedroom. These responses can add to the intensity of their feelings and worsen anxiety or depression so it’s helpful to track if their responses are helping or harming them.

Response 3: Recognize the independence they were experiencing away from home.

Many young people who return home were accustomed to the independence they had on a college campus. Starting a conversation without letting them prepare for it is a way to interfere with that sense of independence and can lead to resistance.

Response 4: Invite them into a conversation about facts, not feelings.

Your college kid may not be comfortable opening up about their substance use or mental health with you at first. An invitation to discuss something “on the surface” can be an alternative to explore. That might look like talking about what a return to campus may involve in the fall or what distance learning equipment they might need if the campus does not reopen right away.

Response 5: Acknowledge your awareness of an SUD and co-occurring mental health disorder.

Acknowledgment and action do not need to be part of the same exchange with your college-aged child. This is the first of a two-part step and can be done on its own to merely let your child know you recognize the signs of a developing substance use disorder and you’re ready to discuss it whenever they feel they are ready, too.

Response 6: Provide substance use help directly or indirectly.

As a parent, you want to do whatever it takes to protect your child, but that may mean knowing when to call in help. Help could come in the form of another family member, a family friend, or an addiction specialist who may be able to connect with your college kid and discuss the substance use.

For college kids with an SUD, self-care is essential right now and it can come from learning coping mechanisms for handling stress, depression and anxiety, using telehealth options as a resource, and spending more time with family members while sharing meals, movie watching, or other non-demanding activities. If your college student is an alumni of our program and in need of extra support right now, they can join a virtual alumni meeting by emailing alumni@originsrecovery.com for access.

Origins Recovery Center is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance use, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety. For information on our programs, call us today: 844-232-3833.

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