College and Addiction

It is no secret that addiction can be one of the scariest things for any parent to worry about for their college student. It’s their first time away from home and you know that they will probably try some things. If they tried some things in high school, you were there to make sure it didn’t get out of hand, instill consequences, guide them but now, it’s up to them. They have to make their own choices and figure out how to be okay. This can be scary for everyone involved.


So first, a quick review. Addiction is psychological and physical condition where a person finds themselves seeking a substance and/or activity or action that becomes habit forming to the degree of harming the person’s emotional and physical well-being. Addiction is not just alcohol and drugs; people can be addicted to sex, shopping, self-harm, gambling, sugar, work, exercise, relationships, eating, not eating. Studies show that addiction can be hereditary and so if someone in your family (even going back generations) had an addiction problem, your child is at higher risk. But addiction can be caused by increased stress, loss, trauma and an inability to cope with what is happening. It is important to understand the signs of addiction.


Signs of addiction:

  • Starting to talk more and more about drinking or drugs
  • Mentioning late night accidents that occurred while out with friends
  • Running out of money and asking for more
  • Putting the drug, drink or activity before schoolwork and other responsibilities.
  • Lying or stealing
  • Hiding alcohol or drugs
  • Ignoring signs of how they may be putting themselves in unsafe situations


Just like a lot of mental health challenges, as parents, you may not see some of the struggles with early addiction. They may not tell you how much they are obsessing or how much their friends are using; but you may start to hear more stories about going out, or notice they don’t get up early any more, are sleeping in or complaining of feeling sick a lot. Their school may start to be affected and they may start to talk about how they are struggling. Here are some tips for both preventing addiction and supporting college students if you think there are early signs.


Prevention: What to know early on before anything goes wrong

  1. Ask and Listen. Addiction doesn’t come out of nowhere, so it’s important to keep the lines of communication open from the beginning about how they are feeling overall, about the new change, about classes, roommates, friends, etc. It’s important to be willing to ask about their feelings and listen to them prior to anything going wrong. This will help minimize risk.


  1. Talk about addiction. It doesn’t usually go well if parents try to say “absolutely not.” Usually, this pretty much guarantees students finding their way to alcohol and drugs. If addiction runs in your family, talk about it. If you have ever struggled, talk about it. Tell them it’s okay if they feel pressure and remind them you are here to listen.


  1. Prioritize safety. Let your student know that having a sober driver is very important. In today’s world of Lyft and Uber, this is less of a problem, but I’d recommend letting them know they can also ask you for that.


Action: What to do when you are worried about addiction:


  1. Addiction and secrecy. A part of addiction is that it likes to linger in the corners, unseen and untouched. So, if you are worried, say something. If you find something unusual (an unknown pill, marijuana in a jeans pocket, a flask), your instinct may be to “just let it go” but I would recommend saying something. They are not in high school anymore, so you don’t have to do the “angry or disappointed parent thing” but rather the “honest, concerned parent” who says, “Hey, what is this? How much of this are doing a week?”


  1. Education & Honesty. They probably get a lot of this around campus and from other adults and maybe as a family you’ve talked about it but it’s still important. I think there are a couple of things every parent should help their kid understand:
  • how addictive pain killers are
  • that mixing drinks and going all day, they are at huge risk for alcohol poisoning.
  • That it is really not normal to drink or use alone. This is the sign of a problem.
  • Let them know it is okay to say no to drinking & and let them know you are here to listen if they ever need you.
  1. Normalize getting support. Suggest getting support from a counselor as a way to “gather information and see what a professional thinks.” Now, I am rarely a fan of making a college student do something because it doesn’t usually work as well. As is true with all addiction, the individual person HAS to want help. That being said, if you think things are getting serious and you are really worried, you may be able to go ahead and let them know since you do support them still indirectly, you would like to require this because you are But all and all, it works best if you can just be honest with how you feel and allow them some time to make the choice to seek support.

It is true that the world of addiction is complex. One great resource I found recently is: . Seeking professional guidance and support for yourself during this tough time could be helpful. Let me know if you have any thoughts or questions or if there is something around the topic of addiction that you would like to hear about.

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Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J. Cook, LPC

Carey J Cook is a Licensed Professional therapist in Asheville, NC. She has a private practice and is the co-founder of Bridge Box which was inspired by her work with college students. In different capacities, Carey has provided education and therapy to college students and families for over a decade. Carey seeks to understand and support college students during this phase of life and provide tangible tools to students via Bridge Box.

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