Parenting tips can reduce substance use in first-year college students

A handbook designed to help parents become advisors and coaches to their young adult children leaving for their first year of college has been shown to increase family connections and moderate risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use, according to a recent paper led by Washington State University researchers.

Aerial view of the WSU Pullman campus with words: First Years Away from Home: Letting Go and Staying Connected With Your WSU Student
The cover of the parenting handbook for the parents of students entering WSU for the Fall 2018 semester.

Evidence of the handbook’s positive impact was published in the journal Prevention Science. Self-reports of 30-day alcohol use increased by 39% for control students once they got to college, but only 28% for students whose families used the book. Cannabis use went up 23% for control students, but only 16% for intervention students.

“The handbook gives parents evidence-based guidance for threading the needle of supporting students’ autonomy and maintaining a parental role,” said Laura Hill, a WSU professor and corresponding author on the paper. “It’s not about telling students what to do or to not drink. It’s about supporting and guiding them to reinforce expectations that have been set over the previous 18 years of parenting.”

Being a parent of a college student can be tricky, Hill said. Most parents either leave students on their own or try to maintain the level of control they had during adolescence. Neither strategy provides the optimal support students need as they become more independent.

The handbook gives suggestions for talking about use of substances like alcohol in a productive way that supports students’ autonomy but also communicates expectations. This helps avoid what can be an awkward conversation for both parents and young adults.

“The first six weeks of college are critical,” said Hill, WSU’s senior vice provost and professor in the Department of Human Development. “A lot of students have significantly more freedom and a lot less structure than at home, so it could be their first exposure to alcohol. Providing a way for parents to talk with their children before they move out helps set expectations and re-emphasizes values-based decision-making.”

Research by Hill and her colleagues shows that reinforcement of expectations leads to students using substances less often than their control group peers whose parents did not receive the handbook.

Headshot of Hill
Laura Hill

The increase in self-reports of 30-day simultaneous use of alcohol and cannabis once at college was 18% for control students vs. 13% for intervention students. Binge drinking increased by 41% for the control group vs. 33% for the intervention group, and extreme binge drinking — more than 10 drinks in a sitting — increased by 13% for the control group vs. 9% for the intervention group. The study recruited 919 parent-student duos and stayed in contact with them from June, when the handbooks were mailed, through the last semester of the students’ second year in college.

“You hear stories about helicopter parents trying to do everything for their students, so many parents think they shouldn’t interfere at all and completely back off,” Hill said. “When we talked to students, most said they want their parents to be involved in their lives. Just not overinvolved.”

The handbook provides guidance on how to toe that difficult line. Going beyond substance use, it provides suggestions for starting discussions with students about the expectations each have for students’ time in college.

The book includes activities like a financial planning worksheet. Parents and students talk about the specifics of how often students will call home, what grades are expected, and who will pay for textbooks, laundry, meals, and more.

Hill and her colleagues shared early data at a conference. In the audience was a senior administrator of the Washington State Division of Behavioral Health and Recovery (DBHR). That led to DBHR funding handbooks for around 19,000 families of first-year college students at six Washington universities in the summer of 2022. These families were not part of the published study.

“We’ve gotten very positive feedback from those universities,” Hill said. “Collaboration around the state has been a key factor since we started this project several years ago.”

One important partnership has been with the University of Washington’s School of Social Work.

“We helped design key areas, such as helping parents become more of a coach, a cheerleader and an advisor to their children,” said Kevin Haggerty, an emeritus professor at UW and former director of the Social Development Research Group. “I was a parent of kids going to college and you often think your kids don’t want to hear from you. The opposite is true. It’s just that the relationship changes—to more of a coach, cheerleader, and advisor.”

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded research on the handbook. Hill and Haggerty were joined on the paper by Matt Bumpus and Brittany Cooper from WSU and Richard Catalano and Martie Skinner from UW.