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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Shifting the Focus

Recruiting parents to help reduce harmful alcohol use by university students

Paweena Sukhawathanakul and Bonnie J. Leadbeater, PhD

Reprinted from "Campuses" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 4 (3), pp. 34-35

It’s no secret that risky drinking by university students is a major concern for public health. According to the 2004 Canadian Campus Survey, 32% of undergraduates in Canada reported harmful patterns of drinking.1

To help combat this problem, the University of Victoria (UVic) got involved in the BC Partners Campus Project.* Each school involved in the project is doing something different to improve the mental health and well-being of students on their campus.

Many universities use alcohol awareness campaigns aimed at reducing alcohol use by students. Unfortunately, these campaigns only start when students are already in university and may already have well established drinking behaviours. Another problem with awareness campaigns is that they may only reach students who choose to participate in these programs.

UVic has chosen a unique approach: we’ve incorporated a program to involve parents of new students in helping prevent risky drinking. Reaching students before they go to university might be the best way to prevent unhealthy drinking habits from forming in the first place. However, whether or not students will adopt these habits may depend on parents who choose to talk with their son or daughter about the dangers of alcohol abuse.

Research suggests that family influences are particularly important in reducing risks for excessive drinking in late adolescence.2 Students who did not report growing up with a problem-drinking parent, for example, abstain from drinking alcohol at greater than expected rates.3 Our program encourages parents to talk to their kids about safe alcohol use. The idea is that parents can use their influence to help their children learn healthy drinking habits.

The University of Victoria’s goal is to give parents the skills they need to effectively talk about alcohol to their children heading to university. These skills are taught through a handbook that describes how to positively influence sons and daughters.

The parent intervention was created by Dr. Robert Turrisi from the Prevention Research Centre at Pennsylvania State University.4 His intervention builds on existing theory and past research. Turrisi found that involving parents:

  • reduced drinking and drunkenness in new students

  • increased the healthy attitudes students had toward drinking

  • reduced student and parent approval of drinking

  • decreased alcohol-related harms in university students

UVic researchers involved in the BC Campus Project began working with Turrisi and his team in the summer of 2006. We looked at how parental communication can protect students from harmful drinking. More specifically, we studied how parental attitudes and behaviours can help students resist risky drinking.

Results from our research study suggest that parents’ role in alcohol prevention does matter. Findings showed that the higher the number of drinks parents thought were appropriate:

  • the more likely students were to get drunk in the past month

  • the greater the chances that students had experienced a negative alcohol-related consequence in the past year

  • the less often students engaged in protective behaviours around alcohol

  • the more likely students were to think that getting drunk was an acceptable activity5

These results show the importance of parent–student communication.

In the summer of 2007, all parents of incoming first-year students received Dr. Turrisi’s parent handbook titled A Parent Handbook for Talking with University Students about Alcohol. The handbook covers a variety of topics on the subject of alcohol, such as the physical and legal consequences of binge drinking. It also contains tips for parents about how to talk to their kids about alcohol. Some of the tips include communication strategies such as using self disclosure and assertiveness effectively.

UVic researchers have already started collecting data to evaluate the effectiveness of the handbook on reducing alcohol-related harms. Students completed online questionnaires that measured the student’s drinking behaviours, risks and protective behaviours, alcohol-related consequences, and perceptions of parent–student communications. We hope to complete the evaluation by the end of summer.

This parent-intervention approach shows tremendous promise. It stresses that parents are still important in influencing the behaviours of their kids, even when they go to university. In sum, by helping parents enhance their communication skills, we may be able to reduce dangerous drinking among the student population.

* see pg. 21

About the authors

Paweena is a Psychology student and research assistant at UVic. She’s currently working with the BC Partners’ Campus Project and UVic Counselling Services on substance abuse prevention and harm reduction.

Bonnie is a Professor in Developmental Psychology at UVic. She is Director of the Centre for Youth and Society, which promotes youth well-being through research partnerships, and Director of the project named Healthy Youth in a Healthy Society: A Community Alliance for Reducing Risks for Injury in Children and Adolescents Recruiting parents to help reduce harmful alcohol use by university students.

  1. Adlaf, E.M., Demers, A. & Gliksman, L. (Eds.). (2005). Canadian Campus Survey 2004. Toronto: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

  2. Schulenberg, J.E. & Maggs, J.L. (2002). A developmental perspective on alcohol use and heavy drinking during adolescence and the transition to young adulthood. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, (Suppl. 14), 54-70.

  3. Weitzman, E.R. & Wechsler, H. (2000). Alcohol abuse and related problems among children of problem drinkers: Findings from a national survey of college alcohol use. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 188(3), 148-154.

  4. Turrisi, R., Jaccard, J., Taki, R. et al. (2001). Examination of the short-term efficacy of a parent intervention to reduce college student drinking tendencies. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 15(4), 366-372.

  5. Sukhawathanakul, P. & Leadbeater, B.J. (2007). The influence of parents on alcohol use and related harms in first year university students. Unpublished manuscript, University of Victoria.


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