Talking With Your Student About Alcohol & Other Drugs

Tips for parents & family members

At Cornell, the majority of undergraduate students do not drink alcohol or do so in relative moderation, and the majority of Cornell students do not use other drugs (Fall 2022 Alcohol and Social Life survey).  

Parents and families play a vital role in helping college students make intentional and safer decisions by providing information, setting expectations, asking questions, and listening to what they have to say. We encourage you to talk with your student about alcohol and other drugs before they arrive on campus so they can start college with essential information and feel more prepared. It is never too late to start the conversation. 

See tips and information about talking with your student, below:

Starting the conversation

The beginning of the conversation should convey open-mindedness and invite a two-way discussion. As a parent or guardian, you are allowed to disapprove of drinking and drug use, but studies show that students who fear punishment or expect a lecture are less likely to listen to what you have to say. Below are some examples of nonjudgmental ways to invite your student to talk with you about their alcohol and other drug use. The goal is to create a space where your student feels they can trust you and that you trust them.

You can say something like this: 

  • “I am here to listen, not lecture. I want to understand where you're coming from. To do that, we need to talk to each other.”
  • “It is important to me that we can trust one another. I will be honest with you and ask that you are honest with me. Is that okay with you?”
  • “You might already know about what goes on out there and maybe already have your own experiences with alcohol or other drugs. It would mean a lot to me if we talked about this, even if it is just so I can learn how things have changed since I was your age.”
  • “I care about you and want to make sure you have fun while being safe. Let’s work together to think about what that might look like.” 

During the conversation

There is no one way to talk with your student about alcohol and other drugs; however, the evidence suggests that some conversations are more effective than others. We recommend addressing the following topics:  

  1. Remind your student that you are on their side and emphasize any common goals; for example, you both want to keep your student safe, happy, and healthy while at college.
  2. Make sure your student understands the possible health implications from drinking and using other drugs with a focus on how these substances will affect their body (see the Alcohol & Other Drugs (AOD) and Cannabis / Marijuana pages for more information about health risks associated with alcohol and cannabis, respectively). Students should also know what to do in an alcohol or other drug emergency
  3. Make sure your student knows the rules about alcohol and other drug (AOD) use at Cornell (see AOD Rules & Policies), and that students who call for help in an AOD emergency are protected from judicial consequences (see Good Samaritan Protocol). 
  4. Explore the reasons why some students choose to drink or use other drugs. Focus on the underlying motivations; for example, a desire to connect with their peers.
  5. Explore the reasons why some students choose NOT to drink or use other drugs, and discuss how to say no. [See How do you say no to a drink?]
  6. Discuss with your student how you can best support them as they navigate alcohol and other drugs at college.

Answering questions about your own drinking and other drug use

It is likely your student will ask if you drank alcohol or used other drugs when you were younger, so it is important to have a plan for what and how you will disclose this information. Research shows that permissive messaging from parental figures is associated with higher levels of use among students; however, being dishonest undermines trust in you and what you have to say. 

If you used alcohol or other drugs when you were younger and choose to share this information with your student, we recommend that you:

  • Answer honestly (e.g., “Yes, I did drink when I was younger. If I could go back and make different decisions, I would.”)
  • Focus on lessons learned (e.g., “Drinking made it difficult to get good sleep, which made me feel tired and unmotivated to get my work done for days to follow. I learned that one night of fun could have long-term negative consequences.”)
  • Highlight consequences (e.g., “I remember waking up the next morning feeling bad about myself because I did and said things that I regretted. I was lucky that I avoided serious consequences.”) 

Continuing the conversation

It is okay to revisit the conversation if you are not able to cover all necessary information in one conversation. Besides, it is important to make conversations with your student about alcohol and other drugs a regular activity as each year presents unique situations that students must navigate, some that are associated with high-risk drinking and use of other drugs:

  • Birthdays are a chance to celebrate with friends and loved ones. It is likely that your student will turn 21 years old during college. This birthday marks a change in legal status; your student will be legally allowed to purchase and use alcohol and cannabis.  
  • Academic breaks are intentionally included throughout the year to provide rest, respite, and a pause from schoolwork. One of the ways students choose to enjoy their time off is to go on trips that are centered around alcohol.
  • Holidays and other celebrations are viewed as opportunities to drink excessively or experiment with drugs with the greater student body (e.g., Homecoming, Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, April 20, Slope Day, and the beginning and end of the semester).
  • Warmer weather means more students are leaving their rooms to be outside. It also makes it easier to go out to parties and local bars / clubs.

Remember, student life goes beyond the classroom, so your student might also be involved with organizations, clubs, and groups on campus that are making them busy. Regardless of where and how, studies show that communicating on weekdays leads to lower drinking on weekends, when most students are exposed to alcohol and other drugs.

You can say something like this: 

  • “I want to check in about how things have been going since we last spoke. What was the highlight of your week?”
  • “I am curious to hear about what you have learned about alcohol use and social life on campus. Has anything surprised you?”
  • “I know [high-risk occasion] is coming up and typically involves higher levels of alcohol use and other drugs. Can we talk about your plans and how you are going to stay safe?”
  • “Is there anything I can do to better support you while you are away at school?” 

If your student needs support

If your student could benefit from support in evaluating their own alcohol or other drug use, in cutting back, or in maintaining recovery from a substance use disorder, Cornell Health has resources and services that can help. Visit our Alcohol & Other Drug Services page for more information. 

If you're concerned about your student, please refer to "What should I do / who should I contact if I'm concerned about my student?" at the bottom of our Especially for Parents & Families page. 

Other trusted resources