FRIDAY, March 29, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Parents who want to help their teens better navigate the world of college drinking might consider a pre-college chat on the topic. New research suggests it will help douse their desire to imbibe when they hit campus.
"The research shows parents do influence a teen's decisions about drinking, even at this age," said study co-author Michael Cleveland, a research assistant professor at the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University.
The scientists recruited 1,900 soon-to-be college freshmen to participate in questionnaires about their drinking habits. The teens, who were planning to attend a large northeastern university, were asked about their high school drinking habits and were then categorized as either nondrinkers, weekend light drinkers, weekend heavy drinkers and heavy drinkers (which included drinking on weekdays and weekends).
Their parents were mailed a 22-page handbook that included general information about college student drinking, how to communicate effectively, advice on how to help teens be assertive and resist peer pressure, and detailed information on the physical effects of alcoholic beverages on the body.
Parents were asked to read the handbook and then talk with their teen about the contents at one of three randomly assigned times, either during the summer before college, during the fall semester of the first year of college, or during the summer before college and again during the fall semester freshman year.
The handbook was created by study author Robert Turrisi, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. He and his colleagues hoped their research would help identify the best time to talk with a teen about college drinking, and whether chatting more than once is more effective than a one-time talk.
The findings, reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, show that teens who talked with their parents about anti-drinking strategies before they began their first year of college were more likely to fall into a non-drinking or light-drinking category, or to transition out of a heavy-drinking group if they were already heavy drinkers.
Talking with their child in the fall of freshman year was less effective or had no additional impact on drinking behaviors, Cleveland said.
He said some of the key points in the parent handbook include communicating to their kids that they will be faced with choices about drinking when they're off at college and they need to be prepared to make smart choices.
"One section covers how alcohol works in the body -- what it's doing, its physiological and psychological effects. There is also information on motives teens give for why they drink, and how to respond to peer pressure," Cleveland said.
Reinforcing that drinking is an illegal behavior and can have serious fallout is discussed in the handbook, too. "There's a constellation of risk behaviors linked to underage and binge drinking: car accidents, suicides and sexual assault," he added.
For example, car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, and about one-third of those are alcohol related, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What's more, each year about 12 percent of college students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking, according to the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Cleveland said a lot of parents have the idea that they help their teens by letting them drink at home, that it's safe because at least they know where their child is drinking. "But we know that when teens are asked about their parents permissibility, those students who had parents who were more permissive were more likely to be heavier drinkers later on," he said.
An expert praised the new research.
"It's a very good study," said Dr. Joanne Sotelo, division director of psychiatry at Scott & White Healthcare in Round Rock, Texas. "It gives some information we already knew about the type of intervention that's needed, but it's interesting to see the difference in timing."
Talking with your teen about sensitive topics like drinking can be challenging and parental "tone" is important, she pointed out. "It's such a tough age between high school and college. You're still kind of figuring out who you are and what you want to be, but you still need your parents' support, you are not fully matured."
She said, ideally, parents won't wait until just before college, but will have been "planting seeds," having small conversations, all along.
Sotelo recommended keeping the talks open-ended, not just lecturing. "If you come across as defensive, that's how they'll respond. Instead, you can say, 'I know you're not supposed to drink, but have you already tried it with your friends?'" Sotelo said then you can voice your expectations that you hope they will not get into problems with alcohol.
Football tailgates, fraternity parties -- she said there's no doubt teens will be exposed to alcohol at college and "it's going to be 100 percent their decision to drink or not to drink."
Some universities are beginning to become more aware of the need to work with parents on drinking issues by offering alcohol-free dorms and events, study author Cleveland said. But he said the best place to begin is at home. "It's challenging for parents to face these questions from an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old, but just having the conversation is a good thing," he said.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism supported this research.
For more facts on college drinking, visit the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.