The two or three months during the summer when your son or daughter returns home after being away at college should be a joyous reunion for parent and student alike, but for some families, worries about drinking or drug problems replace joy with concern. Your child may seem like a stranger to you, having lived away from home for months and developed all sorts of new habits, friends, and interests. Many typical college student behaviors – like keeping odd hours and enjoying seemingly bizarre pastimes – may be perfectly reasonable aspects of living away from home, exploring self-definition away from adult prying eyes and merely having innocent fun. How can you tell if your child is just a college student, or if a drinking or drug problem accounts for the new habits or behaviors you’re seeing?
Physical Signs of a Drinking or Drug Problem
There are specific physical indicators you may notice if your child is developing a drug problem. One or two of these physical symptoms may be better explained by other causes, especially if the symptoms go away quickly and don’t return. But if your child has a number of these symptoms and they seem to hang around stubbornly, you may be dealing with drug abuse or alcoholism.
- Eyes: red eyes, constant tearing or glassy eyes, or abnormally dilated or pinprick pupils
- Nose: red, irritated nostrils, constant runny nose, frequent nosebleeds
- Hands/Arms/Legs: needle or track marks, tremors or shaking especially of the hands, unusual bruising
- Overall: weight loss, malaise, fatigue
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Behavioral Indicators of a Drinking or Drug Problem
Behavioral signs can be more difficult to identify as indications of a drug addiction or problem with alcohol. Many typical college student behaviors can mimic those of drug users – for example, excessive sleeping or never having any money. Getting a holistic sense of your child, regarding physical issues, behaviors and attitudes, can help you put the puzzle pieces into place. Some indicators to be aware of include:
- Asking to borrow money, or stealing household items to sell for money
- Insomnia and/or hypersomnia
- Secretive behavior or phone calls
- Sudden increase in irritability, depression or anxiety
- Bizarre behavior, totally inconsistent with who your child has always been
- Reluctance to communicate, even about neutral topics
What Can You Do?
Your child is no longer a child and there may be little you can do to intervene directly in his or her life. Privacy laws make your direct participation in medical or substance abuse treatment difficult. However, there are things you can do to pave the way for a lasting positive relationship with your child, and that will make it easier for both of you to handle any problems that do arise – even if drinking or drugs are not the issue at this time.
- Make time for your child. Allow at least some of that time to be unstructured and without other family members around. Fifteen minutes for a cup of coffee together is meaningful.
- Listen and show interest. Your child is likely discovering a whole new world at college. Show interest, and ask open-ended questions. Help your child give you a tour of his or her new world and try to enjoy hearing about it. It can be hard to realize that your child has a full and rich life without you, but don’t worry – he or she still needs your interest and at some level your acceptance, if not approval.
- Have good boundaries. Sometimes you will have to say no, whether the request is to borrow the car or borrow cash. Say no, and stay firm in your unwillingness to enable your child. You might not be able to prevent or eliminate a drinking or drug problem, but that doesn’t mean you have to support it. You can have limits and boundaries around what happens in your home, and ultimately holding strong regarding limits can be positive and supportive to your child.
- If you feel you must raise the issue directly, one good way to frame questions about substance abuse or excessive drinking can be to acknowledge the stresses and challenges of college life. Asking your child how he or she copes with all they have to deal with may help to reduce defensiveness and open the conversation up.
It’s safe to assume that your child’s experience is different from your own – whether or not you attended college. Academic pressure and an uncertain future colors this generation’s experience of college more negatively than previous generations. Aim to be someone your child feels he or she can talk to and trust, because if there is a problem, just identifying it and making them feel attacked for it will do the opposite of help. Be a source of strength and support for your child and communicate that, no matter what, you will be there for them — with healthy boundaries perhaps, but never without love, support and hope.