Involving Parents in AOD Efforts with James Matthews, M.Ed.

James Matthews, M.Ed., is the coordinator of Health Education at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA. Matthews has more than 20 years of experience working with students and colleges on alcohol use issues, and has been recognized by the New Hampshire state legislature for his alcohol prevention efforts. In this interview, MyStudentBody talks to Matthews about the role parents can play in a college’s AOD efforts.

How do parents of college students fit into the picture when it comes to alcohol and drug prevention? 

I believe that they can and should take an active role in AOD prevention. But, I think what needs to be understood is that the role starts long before they get to college. This includes engaging in appropriate role modeling of low-risk choices, providing age appropriate information, and even teaching their children how to drink.

One of the things that many people aren’t aware of is that approximately 30 states allow underage people to drink in the home with their family. I think that’s a time that some instruction can take place. I’m not talking about parents hosting parties with alcohol for their children’s underage friends. I’m talking about parents introducing alcohol in a family environment -- long before the student arrives on campus.

Why is it important to involve parents in alcohol abuse prevention? 

Even though peer pressure is strong for young adults, parents still have a dramatic impact on students. Students basically don’t want to let down their parents. There is still that voice inside the student’s head from the parent suggesting that he or she be careful.

The involvement with parents can start even before a student arrives for their first semester at school. I think a letter home to the parents of new students about alcohol is a good start, as well as to include some alcohol component to any parent programming during orientation.

One of the things you have to be careful about is to not overdo it with the parents. I know that some campuses are very reluctant to have this presented to parents. I think they’re making a mistake, first in not getting the support, and secondly in not being realistic. When you do this, the response from many, if not all of the parents, is that they’re so glad that the school is raising the conversation and bringing the parents into the picture.

Is this something that should only be dealt with during orientation, or should schools make an effort to engage parents throughout the school year? 

It’s a balancing act. We have to be careful that by raising the issue we’re not feeding the misperception that “everybody is doing it.” We have to be careful with the language, and balance it with facts about the students who are not engaging in the activity. We also don’t want to belabor them with the issue constantly.

One of the things we’re doing at Merrimack is letting the parents know that they can get onto MyStudentBody as well, and we’re also using a newsletter approach. Our plan is to also include some social norms messages in it, too.

Are there any particular times during the school year when it is useful to get parents involved? 

What I really enjoy doing is a talk during orientation for the parents and students, together. Putting the parents and the students in the same room and discussing the topic goes over so well that we continue to do it. If you have them in the room together, each of them knows they’re all getting the same message about this. It can be very uncomfortable at the time, but it might also force a conversation in a way that they’ve never had before. A follow-up letter during the school year is good, too.

I think we’ve got to be real careful about not overdoing it. I haven’t wanted to raise alarms as an event approaches and cause a parent to panic. Grouping it with our concerns for the health and safety of our students in many ways through a monthly newsletter will cover some of those tough times.

How should college administrators deal with parents who are over-involved with the school’s AOD programs? 

It’s a balancing act of knowing there’s value in parent involvement. But honestly, there aren’t many situations where a parent is over-involved. Sometimes, with all due respect to parents, they don’t understand the real dynamics of the campus community, and perhaps that’s probably one of the things that we need to educate parents about – what it’s like to live in a campus community.

At one college where I worked, the parents association paid for the distribution of my book, Beer, Booze and Books, A Sober Look at Higher Education (2001). The book included a lot of information from students and colleges about alcohol prevention efforts. At that time, all of the incoming students received this book courtesy of the parents association. That was very symbolic.

What are your thoughts on notifying parents about student alcohol offenses? 

I think parents should be notified at some point. The question becomes, at what point? We need to leave some room for personal development with our students, and sometimes that includes making mistakes. The determination of the time to notify parents should be a community-wide decision. Including students in the development of the policy about parental notification is critical.

Certain institutions will send out letters, and have no qualms about doing so. A first time minor offense may not necessarily warrant parent involvement, but if we see a second time in the same school year -- that’s when we might be looking to involve the parent in the conversation.

Are there any books, articles, or online resources that you would recommend for someone who would like to learn more? 

Cremeens JL. (2008, March). Parent-child communication to reduce heavy alcohol use among first-year college students. College Student Journal; v42 n1 p152-163.

Matthews J. (1998). The Parent’s Guide to College Drinking: Facing the Challenge Together. Available for purchase or download at http://www.beerboozebooks.com 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2002). What parents need to know about college drinking [Brochure]. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available at: http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/media/FINALParents.pdf 

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