Teach Safe Drinking to Your College-Bound Teen

by Dwight B. Heath, Ph.D.

Parents should teach safe drinking to their college-bound high school teens. College and university students also need to learn how not to drink and how to drink less, according to Dr. Dwight B. Heath of Brown University.

It once was a unanimously happy occasion when a high school senior was accepted at the college of his or her choice. But that enthusiasm has been dampened somewhat by reports of sexual assault, rape, violence, and deaths associated with binge drinking on college campuses.

We could blame the media for sensationalizing these stories. Or we could blame the universities, or society as a whole. But none of this will mask the grim reality that too many college students drink too much, and there are serious risks involved in their doing so.

What are you, as a parent of a college-aged student, to do? It may be tempting to warn students about the dangers of drinking, but most adolescents already have heard most of the warnings and even may have seen some of the consequences. A majority already have done some experimenting on their own.

Current research holds that more than half of high school seniors in this country already drink more than once a month. Even if they are not bingeing, they know from the experience of others, that it rarely appears to have lasting consequences. For many teens, the risks can seem to be exaggerated, and the pleasures of drinking certainly are not discussed in health class.

They also know that soon they will have easy access to beer and other alcoholic beverages (even if they haven't until now) and will face considerable peer pressure to "be sociable," "relax," and "have fun."

Anyone who cares about an aspiring college student should respect that person enough to talk frankly about the risks of excessive drinking, just as they would about the risks of using drugs or of careless spending.Students Walking

As a parent and longtime member of a university community familiar with drinking problems in many countries, I am convinced that most young people should learn both how to drink, and how not to drink--whether that means declining a drink, avoiding certain places or people, or simply holding a glass for a long time.

For many adults, it can be fun to drink in moderation --with food, with talk, with no intention of getting drunk. There is a rapidly growing body of research that indicates that moderate drinkers (about two drinks per day for males, one drink per day for females) are at less risk for developing cardiovascular disease and have lower death rates from many causes, compared both to non-drinkers and heavy drinkers.

People don't have to drink if they don't want to. We know that individuals vary enormously in their responses to alcohol, and some people should not drink at all. However, college students will have to make the decision for themselves, each time they find themselves in a situation where alcohol is available. They will have to make this decision based on their own knowledge, experiences, and wants. In light of this, it is critical that parents or guardians equip their college-bound students with some realistic, practical guidelines. I suggest the following:

  • Never drink just for the sake of drinking, as a game or contest, or with the aim of getting drunk or forgetting troubles.
  • Don't drink on an empty stomach. Eat both before and while drinking.
  • Pace yourself. Until you are familiar with your own reactions to alcohol, don't consume more than one drink per hour. One drink can be a 12-ounce can or bottle of beer, a 4-ounce glass of wine, or 1 ounce of liquor in a mixed drink. Remember that carbonated drinks get alcohol into the bloodstream faster.
  • Know when to say "when." Monitor your own feelings. Be wary of any changes in mood or perceptions.

Yes, I know that it is illegal in all 50 states to sell alcoholic beverages to anyone under 21. While most college officials do not ignore the law openly, neither do they enforce it very vigorously.

Throughout our history, there has been a love-hate relationship with drink, and it seems unfair to send students off to college without at least some basic guidelines. A few simple precautions may help even the best students to enjoy and benefit more fully from all aspects of their experiences at college.


Dr. Dwight Heath, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, is Professor of Anthropology at Brown University and is the world's leading anthropological authority on drinking. He is an adviser on alcohol to a broad range of national and international organizations and recently edited the International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture.


  • Astin, Alexander W., Parrott, S. A., Korn, W. S., and Sax, L. J. The American Freshman: Thirty Year Trends, 1966-1996. Los Angeles, CA: University of California at Los Angeles, Higher Education Research Institute, 1997.
  • Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities. Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on American Campuses. New York: Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1994. (Note: An investigative reporter has documented that material in this reports is unsubstantiated, of highly questionable accuracy, or misleading.)
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