UW News

May 11, 2023

Parenting tips can reduce substance use in first-year college students

UW News


laptop, notebook and backpack on a desk

A new study of a parenting handbook developed by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Washington found that use of the book helped reduce substance use among first-year college students and improve family connections.


A handbook designed to help parents advise their young adult children leaving for their first year of college has been shown to increase family connections and moderate risky behaviors like drug and alcohol use, according to research by Washington State University and the University of Washington.

In an article published March 18 in Prevention Science, students whose families used the handbook reported their alcohol use over the past 30 days had increased 28% once they got to college, compared to a 39% increase among students whose parents didn’t receive the book. Cannabis use went up 23% for those control students, but only 16% for students whose families used the book.

“The handbook gives parents evidence-based guidance for threading the needle of supporting students’ autonomy and maintaining a parental role,” said Laura Hill, a WSU professor in the Department of Human Development and corresponding author on the paper. “It’s not about telling students what to do or to not drink. It’s about supporting and guiding them to reinforce expectations that have been set over the previous 18 years of parenting.”

The handbook, called “First Years Away from Home: Letting Go and Staying Connected,” provides suggestions for talking about use of substances like alcohol in a productive way that supports students’ autonomy but also communicates expectations. Researchers say this helps avoid what can be an awkward conversation for both parents and young adults.

“The first six weeks of college are critical,” said Hill, WSU’s senior vice provost. “A lot of students have significantly more freedom and a lot less structure than at home, so it could be their first exposure to alcohol. Providing a way for parents to talk with their children before they move out helps set expectations and re-emphasizes values-based decision-making.”

Following the study, and ahead of the 2022-23 academic year, the Washington Health Care Authority funded distribution of the handbook to families of incoming students at six universities in the state, said study co-author Kevin Haggerty, professor emeritus of social work at the UW and former director of the UW Social Development Research Group. The UW sent out the books last fall.

“One of the most amazing things about doing this kind of research is the ability to get it to the people who need it the most,” said Haggerty, who, along with the UW co-authors developed the Raising Healthy Children programs to help young people navigate independence. “It’s satisfying to know the state was so struck by the data that they wanted to get it in the hands of as many students as possible.”

The study recruited 919 parent-student duos at WSU — two-thirds of whom received the book — and monitored them through regular surveys from the summer before the first semester at college, through the last semester of the students’ second year.

Researchers say the study shows that reinforcement of expectations leads to students using substances less often than their control group peers whose parents did not receive the handbook. Binge drinking increased by 41% for the control group versus 33% for the intervention (handbook) group, and extreme binge drinking — more than 10 drinks in a sitting — increased by 13% for the control group compared to 9% for the intervention group.

Going beyond substance use, the book is a guide to starting discussions about the expectations both parents and students have for college. The book includes activities like a financial planning worksheet, as well as plans for how often students will call home, what grades are expected, and who will pay for textbooks, laundry, meals and more.

“We helped design key areas, such as helping parents become more of a coach, a cheerleader and an advisor to their children,” Haggerty said. “I was a parent of kids going to college and you often think your kids don’t want to hear from you. The opposite is true. It’s just that the relationship changes — to more of a coach, cheerleader and advisor.”

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Co-authors were Martie Skinner and Richard Catalano of the UW and Matt Bumpus and Brittany Cooper of WSU.

For more information, contact Hill at laurahill@wsu.edu or Haggerty at haggerty@uw.edu.

Adapted from a Washington State University press release.