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My College Student Child Is Addicted To Drugs And Alcohol. What Should I Do?

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

February 26, 2019

For many, going away to college is a rite of passage that brings about as much trepidation as it does excitement for both the parent and the student. It is a time of great change that can often be overwhelming. Some college students may deal with this stress by drinking excess amounts of alcohol or experimenting with drugs. As a parent, this behavior can be scary and drive a wedge in the relationship. Fortunately, there are ways to help get college students the treatment they need.

As a parent, it can be hard to let your child go with the knowledge that their life will continue to exist outside of the sphere of your influence. You want to be able to help your child and support them when life gets tough, and it can be very difficult to have a physical, and at times mental and emotional distance between the two of you that impedes your ability to do so. When your child suffers from a drug or alcohol addiction, this distance may be felt even more acutely.

College Is A New Environment With New Pressures

One thing that gives many parents of college-aged students great pause and intense worry is the student’s exposure to drugs or alcohol during their college years. These years often place a student in greater proximity to drugs or alcohol through a variety of social events, both on campus and off.

Drugs and alcohol are present at parties and within various situations that students may seek or be pressured to experience during their tenure in college. Between peers, the attitudes and perceptions surrounding drug and alcohol abuse in college often focuses more on the fun than the detrimental and dangerous realities of abuse and addiction. Experimenting is a common part of the college experience for many, but there is a vast difference between experimenting and falling into the hold of addiction.

What is unfortunate and altogether too true for many college students, is that this experimentation morphs into something darker and more far reaching; it is often the gateway to abuse and addiction. As a student falls prey to peer pressure or stress, they might begin using drugs or alcohol in increased frequencies or greater quantities to keep up within their social sphere or contend with issues within their life.

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Stress, Addiction, And Self-Medication

A college student may at times feel surrounded by stress—academically, financially, socially, romantically, sexually, and vocationally—these are just several examples of some of the most predominant sources of stress for a person of this age.

Drugs or alcohol can appeal to a college student because they give a false sense of security. They feel like they’re in control—they may begin using these substances to provide a distraction or alleviate stress. This self-medication can spin out of control as a person ignores the real issues at hand, which in turn continue to grow and exert pressures—which then drive them to use more—and a viscous cycle is born.

Numerous reports and studies illustrate that alcohol is the most common drug of abuse and addiction within the college demographic. The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids reports that “Almost half of all admissions for substance abuse treatment that involve college students are primarily related to alcohol.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens, reported on the 2014 Monitoring the Future Survey, which is a national survey on substance abuse in young adult and student populations. What it found was startling—rates of heavy drinking were higher for individuals that were enrolled in college, than that of their peers that were not. Specially, they reported the following rates of heavy drinking: “Binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row): 35.4 percent of college students, 29.3 percent of non-college peers in the past 2 weeks” and “Intoxication (having been drunk): 42.6 percent of college students, 34.1 percent of non-college peers in the past month.”

Co-Occurring Disorders Pose A Threat To College-Aged Individuals

College is a time of many changes. This is in many cases the first time your child has been on their own—and in doing so they’re contending with new responsibilities, challenges, influences, environments, and peer-pressures. All of these things can at times be stressful, which may exacerbate an existing condition that your child has, or exert pressures and stress on their life that can cause one to develop.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines a co-occurring disorder as “The coexistence of both a mental health and a substance use disorder is referred to as co-occurring disorders.” You may also hear these referred to as a dual diagnosis.

Examples include:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • ADHD
  • borderline personality disorder
  • bipolar disorder

If your child has a preexisting condition that you’re aware of, reach out to them, see how they’re doing and see if they are struggling with it or taking steps to treat it. Chances are, if they’re struggling with substance use or addiction, they may be letting any co-occurring disorders get out of hand in one way or another and using the substance to self-medicate their struggles.

Taking the time to acknowledge this right away can give you and your child a leg up. Whenever a person suffers from a co-occurring disorder, they need to treat both it and the addiction in order to truly increase their odds of obtaining and maintaining sobriety. When you look into treatment programs, make sure you choose one that is adept at handling these situations if they are relevant to your child. If your child hasn’t suffered from one of these disorders in the past, but you see signs or symptoms that they might now be, be mindful of trying to integrate this knowledge into their care and treatment.

Communicate your fears, worries, and observations to your child’s doctor or addiction support team. You might feel like a worry wort, but remember—you likely know your son or daughter better than most anyone else—your perspective can offer valuable insight that can help your child to receive care that is better tailored to suit their needs.

What Should I Do If I Want To Get My Child Into Rehab?

If your child is a legal adult, which they likely are, it isn’t as simple as packing them up and taking them to a facility. Here are certain things that you can do to make the process easier on both yourself and your child. The following steps can prepare your child for rehabilitation and lend you the strength you need to support them.

Don’t Do It Alone: Perhaps you’re embarrassed or shameful that your child is struggling with an addiction, or perhaps you’re worried that if you tell someone, your child will shut you out of their life. This can be a lot for anyone to deal with, but remember, getting your child the help they need before their addiction spirals any further out of control should be your priority.

Reach out to other friends or family members that may be able to support both you and your child during this difficult time. If you reach a point where an intervention is necessary, having these people at the ready can make this crucial time easier and even more successful.

Establish Open Communication: Many parents may struggle with this. It can be hard to talk about certain issues or circumstances that your child may encounter. Additionally, due either to their new-found sense of privacy or possibly preexisting tensions between the two of you, your child may not be that willing to talk to you.

In all cases, be patient—try to establish your presence within their life, show them that even though you are not there, you still care. Knowing that you are there and taking an active interest in their life and health can hold them accountable and give them strength.

Encourage them to check in with you or reach out to them. Certain times may present more triggers for your child, these include: after exams, weekend nights, and after certain social events, such as sporting events, homecoming, or Rush Week.

Don’t Be Overbearing: It is important that you are attentive and receptive, however, if you have a tendency to hover or be too overbearing you might actually push your child away, leaving you with even less access to their life and an even more limited means by which to help them.

Be Encouraging And Supportive: At any age it is hard to let your parents down. Your child might feel a sense of shame or embarrassment over their addiction. When a person is addicted, they often let their responsibilities fall to the wayside—like school—for this reason it is important to let your child know that you stand by them, as they might feel like they’ve really messed up and let you down.

Familiarize Yourself With Your Resources: As much as you might want to get your child into treatment immediately, you need to make sure that you are not rushing things in a capacity that causes you to overlook vital elements of your child’s care.

Every person is different. There are many different types of treatment facilities that exist today to help people such as your child overcome their addiction. Think of the needs that your child has and find out if the facilities offer the support and treatment to meet them. When your child is stricken by the weight of addiction, looking into a program may seem too great a task—taking the initiative to do this may help to accelerate the process so that they can get the help they need as soon as possible.

Look into campus-based support. This can help you to get the ball rolling. Today, many campuses offer different resources and mental support services for students that are struggling with an addiction. Not only will this grant you access to tools to help your student get help, but it might be easier for them to accept or initiate help this way, being that help yet resides within their world and not yours. These resources are developed around the specific needs and concerns that face college students.

Screening And Assessment: If your child is willing to work with you, you can direct them towards these tools which will help to determine and outline the extent of your child’s addiction. Screening is typically a self-administered test that establishes a baseline of their abuse and addiction, whereas an assessment is delivered by someone that is trained in addiction support like a counselor or therapist. The latter is used as a means to dig deeper and understand more about the way the person thinks about their addiction.

Intervention: Sometimes, despite your best efforts at communicating, you might not be able to get through to your child. It might be becoming too painful and worrisome to sit back and watch the addiction destroy their life any further.

At this point an intervention may be necessary. Again, having your child’s friends or family involved may help give them the support and added perspective that they need to accept the fact that they need help. Interventions can be difficult, consider enlisting the aid of a person that is trained to oversee this process.

Will I Always Have Access To Information About My Child?

The short answer is no. The majority of college-aged individuals are 18 and above, thus they are legally considered an adult. One thing that can be very frustrating to parents and leave them feeling helpless is that certain privacy laws might disable your child’s doctor or medical provider from speaking to you about your child’s appointments and their health. As a parent, you want nothing more than to look after and protect your child, and this can feel like an assault to your role and ability to do so.

One way to help ease your mind, and maintain your involvement within the process, is to take time prior to the appointment and speak with the doctor or medical practitioner who will be examining or treating your child. This gives you the opportunity to ask any questions or voice any concerns that are relevant to the situation. This also gives you a chance to inform them of any information that your child might not be willing or able to tell them, thus enabling the treatment provider a greater perspective by which to base his approach and assessment on.

Depending on the situation, there are certain instances where the attending provider may disclose information without the patient’s permission. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “The HIPAA Privacy Rule permits a covered entity to disclose PHI, including psychotherapy notes, when the covered entity has a good faith belief that the disclosure: (1) is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others and (2) is to a person(s) reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat.This may include, depending on the circumstances, disclosure to law enforcement, family members, the target of the threat, or others who the covered entity has a good faith belief can mitigate the threat.”

Even though you may not be able to hear details about your child and their appointments or sessions, you can still be involved in their care. Reach out to your child, let them know that you’re there to support them. Establishing an open door of communication can make it easier for them to come to you and express their struggles and health concerns. Many times, therapy or treatment will actually involve a person’s family—this will allow you another venue by which to work with your child as they fight towards their sobriety.

Let Us Help You Find The Best Care For Your Child Today

You might want to do everything for your child, but the truth is, you can’t do it all on your own. That’s why we’re here—our staff understands your needs and those of your college-aged child. Supporting a person as they work towards sobriety can be a hard road. We can help you to find the skills and tools that can make this journey easier, and result in your finding the best care for your child. Contact us today at and start helping your child find a healthy life as they enter adulthood.

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