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Tips for Sending Kids and Grandkids to College Safely

Here’s how to prep them for sexual health and overall health.

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Stack of college textbooks and mortarboard wrapped in caution tape
Margeaux Walter
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 As you can imagine, with a gynecologist for a mother, my daughters knew a lot about safe sex, contraception and lots of other health warnings by the time they were in high school. When we sent our oldest daughter off to college, she never hesitated to call us for medical advice — though often it would be “for a friend.” I am quite sure she preferred to deal with things on her own rather than let me know she had a hangover ... or worse.   

Recently I sat down with Jill Grimes, M.D., a family physician and author of The Ultimate College Student Health Handbook, and had a conversation about preparing kids (and grandkids) for their first illness, accident or panic attack when a parent is not around to help. Here are a few tips — based on her research and my experiences — to have before you wave goodbye and turn your teen’s bedroom into your office.    

Let’s start with partying. According to Grimes, the drink of choice is vodka shots (not beer). When we went to college, it took a lot of beer-chugging to get intoxicated. Vodka shots go down quickly, resulting in getting really drunk, really fast. Drunk to the point of dangerous blood alcohol levels causing nausea, vomiting and loss of consciousness. This brings me to the next topic: “blackout” drinking.

“Brownout” drinking does not mean passing out, it means drinking to the point that there is memory loss. When a blood alcohol level rises too quickly, the brain stops making memories. The next day, no matter how many friends remind them, kids may have no clue what happened. This can be the case even if someone does not appear obviously drunk. Yes, someone can be “brownout drunk” but appear to be unaffected.    

While you may warn your daughter/granddaughter about someone slipping drugs into her drink, alcohol is actually the most common “date rape” drug. Current statistics show that 13 percent of all college students (26.4 percent female and 6.8 percent male) report sexual assault by force, violence or incapacitation. It’s no longer enough to say “No means no.” The mantra is that students must give “enthusiastic, ongoing, verbalized consent.” (Note that if someone is “blackout” drunk, they will have NO memory of whether they gave consent and whether they asked for consent.)    

Marijuana is everywhere, legal or not, and it’s not the pot you may have smoked back in the day. THC concentrations in the ’80s were around 5 percent, whereas now 15 percent is the norm, and you can find up to 30 percent. Worse, if you’re buying weed from an illegal drug dealer, you don’t know what’s really in it. Drug dealers sell pot by weight, so they may add sand or crushed glass particles to make it heavier. Additionally, they may add ingredients like formaldehyde or LSD to give an enhanced high, thus giving them a reputation for better/stronger weed. In states where pot is not legal yet, these drug dealers look exactly like students on campus … because often, they are.     

One in five college students suffer from test anxiety. I’m not talking about appropriate anxiety from lack of preparation, but true panic symptoms that result in a racing heart and brain blank-out. If this happens to your kid, no need to jump on the catastrophic fantasy train! One bad grade does not mean they will flunk the class, lose their scholarship and never get into med school, law school or the career of their choice. Campus counselors treat test anxiety all the time, starting with calming breathing techniques and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).    

Homesickness has always been a thing, but social media makes FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) much worse. Lonely freshmen scrolling through their Instagram accounts see “everyone” else having a fabulous time, while they feel left out. What helps?

Take away their phone so they can’t be on social media. OK, just kidding, but wouldn’t it be nice?

Encourage your child to get involved and join at least two clubs. Think service, faith-based, sports, food-centered, music, a hiking club.

Change the psychological locks. The worst homesick college kids often live the closest to home, readily able to visit mom for meals, hugs and laundry. Then, they miss out on the spontaneous friendships made those first weeks of school. Limit their home visits. Tell them you are busy that weekend(s).    

Dorms are the worst places to sleep. They are too loud, too smelly, and too fluorescent-lit bright, with strangers coming and going at all hours. Add in all the anxieties of college life, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for insomnia.

Great grad gifts (aside from Grimes’s book!) include a 2-inch foam mattress topper, a noise-muffler device, Bluetooth sleep headband-style headphones (so they can listen to sleep mediations to fall asleep), and a sleep mask to darken the room.  

Be sure to give them a copy of their insurance card and a copy of their immunization record. AND … have them take pictures of both documents and “favorite” them on their phones. This is crucial info if they end up in urgent care or an emergency room!

Now that you are considering keeping them safely at home, you will be assured by this: Studies show that about a third of college students choose not to drink (or use drugs). Roughly another third drink responsibly, which leaves the last third that reports frequent binge and blackout drinking. Meanwhile, there are many groups — especially those that are culture- or religious-based — in which drinking is light or not at all. Finally, it is wise to remind your loved ones headed for college that peer pressure is truly based on your wise choice of peers. 

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