Imagine this; it’s your first day as a college student and your so excited to finally be on your own. But you’re feeling a little homesick and more than a little nervous about meeting your roommate. Plus, you’ve heard from your older alumni brother that freshman math is really hard. You just left all your friends from home and have to get used to meeting all new people. It’s seems a little overwhelming but you think you’ll make it. Now imagine your parents are alcoholics. You’re feeling all the same fears of a normal college student on their first day but you’ve also got to deal with the knowledge that you left your 12 year-old sister behind and you have haven’t quite figured out how to explain to your new roommate why it’s just not appropriate for her to meet your parents.
The transition from life at home to the freedom of living on their own can be a challenge for all students. Students are learning to balance their class work with making new friends and living independently for the first time. While college provides students with many opportunities for success, it also provides exposure to situations where there is pressure to use alcohol and other drugs, which can lead to long-term problems in many students, especially those who are predisposed to it. By knowing the issues these students face you can help spot potential problems and ultimately help students succeed in college despite their obstacles.
Many students from substance abusing families live out their families’ legacy by abusing alcohol and other drugs themselves. In fact, these students are three to four times more likely to become addicted than their peers. However, its important to note that not all students who grew up with a parent with an alcohol or other drug problem will develop long-term problems with alcohol or other drugs. Some may suffer more societally acceptable, but no less damaging alternatives such as depression or eating disorders. Many students who grew up in this environment have vivid childhood memories of disappointment, fear and shame. These experiences may influence how they think about themselves, relate to others, tackle new situations, and act in social situations. Students from families who abused alcohol or other drugs often suffer from low self-esteem. This lack of self esteem exists for many reasons, but mainly occurs as a result of the stigma associated with having a parent who is a substance abuser and lacking a healthy role model to provide nurturing and messages of worth. They may be unable to identify, accept, or express emotions and have difficulty learning to trust. Some of them may feel guilt, shame and anger about a loved one’s alcohol or drug use. Many are used to caring for younger siblings and feel the guilt of leaving them behind. Some may already be concerned about their own drinking or drug use.
Many of these students will be aware that their background puts them at a high risk for substance abuse and are afraid to enjoy their college experience for fear of “becoming their parent”. First-year students whose parents are substance abusers may have particular trouble adjusting to college life. They may have difficulty adjusting to life with a roommate, finding it hard to trust a new person, establishing clear boundaries, and having difficulty explaining their family life to new friends. These same issues make it difficult to establish friendships or get involved in a romantic relationship. A fear of not performing up to potential, perfectionist expectations, an inability to concentrate, and problems working as a team are all possible symptoms that may surface in these students and may hinder the student’s ability to succeed academically and socially.
In addition to these issues can be the added stress these students may feel when holidays and vacations come around. While normally an exciting time for most students, planning to go home for the holidays or vacations can be a major source of anxiety for students of substance abusing parents.
Resiliency: Despite what you may think given the obstacles they faced growing up, students whose parents abused alcohol or other drugs may be some of the most resilient students you’ll ever meet. Because of the adversity they faced many of them developed strengths that helped them cope with their difficult situation. You can help them identify their strengths and learn to utilize those strengths in positive ways. Some of these strengths may include responsibility, loyalty, the ability to nurture others, a sense of humor, the ability to cope with crisis, and perseverance.
For some students the warning signs of growing up with substance abusing parents won’t be nearly as obvious and you may have to look harder to spot cries for help. Student leaders, star athletes, over-achievers – some of the most well-liked and popular students on campus – may have a secret they are keeping. Despite their outward appearance, these students may be suffering greatly inside despite an outward appearance of success. These students may appear happy and well-adjusted to their peers but they may be suffering from their past just the same as those who show more obvious signs of trouble.
All students who grew up with alcohol and other drugs in their families can benefit from knowing where to turn for help. By being aware of the issues they face you can make a difference in the college experience and help decrease the potential for the cycle of abuse to continue.
Other Ways to Help
• Pursue information and training so that you are aware of the issues on how best help these students.
• Provide the number and location of counseling services on and off-campus.
• Make materials for students from substance abusing families and general materials on alcohol and other drugs available by implementing strategies that permit students to access them anonymously if needed.
• Develop support groups in the residence hall for other students whose parents abuse alcohol or other drugs.
•Facts on Tap
This site contains information for college professionals and students on college drinking and other drugs. There is also information specific to students from substance abusing families.
Submitted by Julie Gerber, Director of Facts on Tap