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Five Tough Conversations to Have Before Your Child Heads Off to College


Summer is in full swing, but soon it will be time for your child to head off to college. Whether they’re entering their freshman year or returning as an upperclassman, college can be a frightening time due to the many risks threatening young people today: an unprecedented mental health epidemic, deadly street drugs, substance misuse and addiction…not to mention rigorous academic demands.

Well, frightening for parents, that is. Let’s face it, your child is unlikely to be focused on the dangers they’re up against, says student wellbeing activist David Magee. That’s why it’s up to parents to start an honest (and tough) conversation about the world they live in today.

“Your teen or young adult child might not realize that they are entering into a pressure cooker of threats when they leave for college,” says Magee, author of the upcoming book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss. “They need to know what they’re walking into…and that they are not alone.”

Magee isn’t suggesting you “scare your kids straight.” Rather, he wants parents and children alike to approach college with clear eyes. After losing his son William to an accidental drug overdose, and nearly losing another son, Hudson, to an overdose at a college frat party, he advocates for having difficult conversations up front—they can save lives. This is why he founded the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi, which seeks to understand how best to prevent or break the cycle of unhealthy habits and addictions that plague so many college students, and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education.

Here are five tough but necessary talks to have with your children before they leave your home for the school year.

Tough Conversation #1: Pills can kill. Don’t let your child leave for college without making it clear that taking counterfeit pills is literally gambling with their life. Today counterfeit pills such as “Adderall” or “Xanax” can be laced with rat poison, antifreeze, meth, and finally, fentanyl. This highly addictive drug has contributed to huge numbers of accidental drug overdoses across the nation. When even a “crumb” of fentanyl makes its way into a pill due to crude production practices, it can and does kill. Encourage your children to stay far away from these deadly pills.

Tough Conversation #2: Marijuana isn’t so harmless (anymore). Marijuana, now legal in several states, has long been part of American culture. So, it’s natural that your child—and maybe even you—assume it’s mostly harmless. At one time, that may have been true. However, today, street marijuana is 300 to 400 percent more potent than it was 25 years ago, and it’s nearly four times more addictive.

“My son wrote journal entries describing how emotionally difficult it was for him to separate himself from marijuana,” says Magee, who recalls how the drug slowly took over his late son William’s life. “Because for him, it had become a ritual that began when he woke up, continued at midday, and concluded at night so he could go to sleep. And I hear the same things from students I talk to in middle schools and at colleges and universities. It becomes this daily part of their life that feels harmless. But over time, it grows and takes them over.”

Tough Conversation #3: Reality check: Today’s “addict” could be YOU. There’s still a deep stigma in North America against drug users. Unfair (and unkind) as it may be, many people view them as lower-class citizens. They may picture a “drug dealer” as a shady character peddling substances on the street corner. We might envision an “addict” as a frail, scabby, toothless person. Yet today’s drug dealers and users are often upper middle class. Many are bright and clever college students. But stigma prevents us all from seeing the truth—and from getting help.

Make sure your children understand that they can become an “addict” (or a “drug dealer,” for that matter) all too easily, especially with the abundance and accessibility of street drugs, prescription pills, and alcohol on college campuses, urges Magee. There’s no shame in having a substance misuse problem, but if you do, it is crucial to admit it (sooner than later) and seek help.

Tough Conversation #4: Instead of self-medicating, cultivate joy. With depression and anxiety at all-time highs in young people, your child may experience some mental health issues during the college years. And many choose to self-medicate with recreational drugs and alcohol, or even isolation, food, television, or social media. Explain to your children that there are much better ways to create sustainable well-being, says Magee.

Help them recognize what brings them true joy and explain that maintaining that joy means taking care of themselves. All students need a “toolbox” of habits, practices, and mindsets to help them maintain their mental health, avoid dangerous behavior like substance misuse, and create the wellness they crave. Some essential tools that will serve them in college and throughout life are:

  • Plenty of sleep each night (not once in a while). Remind your child to keep their phone away from their bed to resist the urge to text and scroll.
  • Daily exercise, fresh air, and sunlight. A daily walk or run sends invigorating blood to the brain and body, making your child feel more alive and alert while improving their mood.
  • Intentional social media use. There’s nothing wrong with using social media, but it’s not healthy to be online 24/7. Advise your child to monitor their stress and anxiety levels (pay attention to feelings of nervousness or inferiority) and know when to take a break or stop altogether.

Tough Conversation #5: There’s no shame in getting help. In fact, it’s vital. Emphasize that if your child needs any sort of counseling, therapy, or treatment, it is okay to get help. No one should have to struggle alone with anxiety, depression, body image issues, substance misuse disorder, or any other issue that threatens their well-being. Help your child locate counseling options and other resources when arriving on their college campus so they can find them quickly if needed. And stay in close contact with your child throughout the semester. Having frequent phone calls, visits, and conversations with lots of open-ended questions are excellent ways to connect, and they also give you the opportunity to notice that your child needs extra support.

Finally, remind your child that they are not alone, even when away at school. Parents, educators, and communities are recognizing the complex set of problems our young people face, and many are working on solutions. This is why Magee founded the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, available at https://themayolab.com and on Apple and Spotify podcast platforms. These resources support students and provide answers for parents and educators.

“Don’t think of these tough talks as open-and-shut lectures but rather the beginning of an ongoing dialogue,” concludes Magee. “You may be guiding the conversation, but your child should absolutely share, give their thoughts and feedback, and have buy-in on solutions.”

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