In the next few weeks, parents of college freshmen will be helping their kids pack up all those seemingly indispensable items for dorm life. Sending a child off for what is probably his or her first extended period of independence is scary, and many parents try to cram in last-minute bits of advice. Here's one more: talk about drinking. This is a critical conversation whether you have a son or a daughter, but it's especially important for young women to understand the ways in which they risk both short-term and lifelong health problems if they abuse alcohol during these years.
First, a reality check. Laws against underage drinking don't stop kids who really want to drink. Colleges around the country have made efforts to crack down at on-campus functions, but it isn't easy when fake IDs are just a scanner away. So don't count on fear of the law to do your work for you.
Of course, this isn't a problem that begins when your daughter leaves home. About 39 percent of ninth-grade girls have had a drink in the last month, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But even if your daughter has abstained until this point, and even if you've talked to her before about drinking, she will be facing extra pressures as she tries to make friends and get on top of classes in her new home. If there is a family history of alcoholism, she's at even greater risk.
Many parents find it hard to bring up the subject of drinking without sounding like they're giving a lecture. Experts suggest looking for opportune moments. You could be watching a TV program together that includes drinking scenes, or your daughter might tell you about a party she went to. Ask open-ended questions that will encourage her to open up about what she is thinking or feeling, not just questions with a "yes" or "no" answer. Some talking points to consider:
1. Not One of the Boys
A little girl growing up today can reasonably aspire to just about any profession, but there is one way in which she will never be equal to a boy, and that is the way her body processes alcohol. For example, if two people, of opposite genders, but equal weight, drink the same amount and type of alcohol, the woman will get drunker and stay that way longer. Alcohol is processed through the digestive tract and is diluted by the water in our bodies. Because women have proportionately less water in their bodies than men, the alcohol they drink is less dilute for them. Women's bodies also produce less alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH)--the molecule responsible for breaking alcohol down so that the body can eliminate it.
Researchers estimate that a young woman who matches her male classmate drink for drink is actually experiencing twice the impact of the alcohol and its toxic byproducts. It is for this reason that federal guidelines define moderate drinking as no more than one drink a day for adult women and no more than two drinks a day for adult men. The official definition of a standard drink is one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one five-ounce glass of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
2. The Odds of Injury
There's a clear correlation between drinking and violence. It's estimated that each year, close to 600,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are injured under the influence of alcohol; about 1,700 college students will die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes. Binge drinking, which means four or more drinks at one occasion for women, dramatically increases the chances that college-age women will be victims of an attack or date rape.
In a study published in the June 2008 issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, scientists from the University of Buffalo found that the odds of 18- and 19-year-old college women experiencing sexual aggression was 19 times greater when they binge drank than when they didn't drink. Other risk factors included being a new drinker and increasing weekly drinking.
The researchers followed 179 women who entered the university in the fall of 2004 for eight weeks. They found that 66 percent reported drinking alcohol during that period; 62 percent of those who drank said they had been drinking heavily (on average, seven drinks). "It's heavy drinking that's the key here," says Kathleen Parks, the study's principal investigator and a senior research scientist at the university Research Institute on Addictions. "When a young woman goes out and drinks to the point of intoxication, she's not going to be aware of what's going on around her."
3. A Lifelong Hangover
Drinking heavily at a young age makes it more likely that a woman will develop an alcohol abuse problem when she is older. Other long-term consequences for women who drink heavily in college can be severe. These are the years when your body is still building bone; drinking too much as a young adult puts women at later risk for osteoporosis, a disorder characterized by fragile bones. Heavy drinking also makes them more vulnerable to breast cancer and heart disease and can lead to irregular periods, early menopause and infertility.
4. The Truth About Peer Pressure
Peer pressure is often cited as the reason why college students drink, but a number of recent studies have shown that young people frequently overestimate the number of heavy drinkers on their campuses. When schools make an extra effort to publicize the accurate figures, problem drinking declines. Here's another way to look at it. Even if half of all students say they drink heavily on weekends, there's another half who don't. Many colleges also have opened alcohol-free dorms, and some campus groups advertise alcohol-free parties. These can be especially important for girls who enter college without much experience in drinking.
5. Why She Needs a Family Lifeline
Even after she's installed in her dorm, you should keep in touch. The first six weeks are a crucial time for college freshmen. That's when they experience the most acute loneliness and adjustment problems. If your daughter can make it through that period without escaping into alcohol, she is headed in the right direction. If you're concerned about what you're hearing in e-mails or phone calls, try to attend parents' weekend, where you can get a better sense of how she is doing by meeting her roommates and friends.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has more advice for parents of college and high schools students.