How to Tell If Your College Student Is Experimenting With Drugs

When college kids come home to visit, parents often notice changes from the young person they dropped off at campus. Sometimes those changes are great — a new appreciation for home and family, growth in personal responsibility or a willingness to share what they’ve learned and talk with you as an adult.

Other times, however, the changes are more concerning — unhealthy weight loss or other changes in appearance, sullenness, secretive attitude and loss of interest in former activities and friends. Things that register as a blip on your parental radar and make you want to investigate.

Approaching a Tough Conversation With Your College Student

By the time you reach the college-level of parenting, you have a pretty deep catalog of things to watch out for and a network of peers you can check in with to get the lowdown on what’s going on with your grown child’s cadre of friends.

If yours seems to have gone off track compared to her former circle of cohorts, it might be time to look into what’s going on. Just be aware that launching your inquiry may be different now that your child has been independent for a while.

Start by taking a deep breath. “The best way to approach your child is with delicacy, not drama,” Lisa Kaplin, psychologist and parenting coach, tells PsychCentral. “If you approach them with panic, anger, aggression or accusations, you can be sure your child will tell you absolutely nothing. Yelling, threatening and lecturing your child typically leads them to withdraw, sneak around and lie.”1

Of course, that’s the last thing you want at this point. If your child is having problems away from home, you want home to be the place she comes for help. You can’t know what kind of help she needs unless trust is the basis for your conversation with her, so build from that platform.

Talk to your child when you’re both calm and not exhausted.
Ask open-ended questions that give her the opportunity to be honest — and don’t punish her for telling you the truth.1 You may be shocked to learn she’s been experimenting with drugs or bingeing on alcohol, but let her know she has your love and support in her struggle.

What Drugs Do College Students Use and Why?

The college years are a time when students test values and beliefs for themselves. They aren’t satisfied with being told by parents and teachers what’s safe regarding drugs or alcohol and are more likely to be influenced by peers or social events than statistics.

But here’s what the numbers tell us about annual substance use among full-time college students, according to the Monitoring the Future survey:

  • Alcohol was the most common substance, with 78.9 percent of students reporting previous-year use
  • Marijuana came in second, with 39.3 percent of college students saying they had used it in the past year
  • Adderall was a distant third at 9.9 percent

Misuse of other substances fell far below the top three. Here are a few highlights:

  • Tranquilizers – 4.9 percent
  • Ecstasy – 4.7 percent
  • Cocaine – 4 percent
  • Prescription narcotics – 3.8 percent
  • LSD – 3.1 percent
  • Heroin – 0.2 percent2

The most concerning result may be what another study found out about behavior on drugs: “Of those students who reported drug use, almost half (44 percent) had driven a car while on drugs.”3

Although college students labeled drug experimentation and use as “dangerous,” this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t misuse them. Risk-taking is still attractive to this age group, and boys especially report higher misuse of substances while claiming it’s not safe to do so.2 Research shows the human brain is still maturing in many ways, including the ability to make sound decisions, until a person’s mid-to-late 20s.4

Considering this, parental guidance is even more important in college students’ lives and crucial in helping them survive to maturity.
For some students, experimentation with drugs has nothing to do with thrills, and they misuse prescription drugs for what seem like “responsible” reasons. For example, Adderall’s popularity comes from the fact that it ramps up focus and enables students to stay awake longer.

A student looking for extra energy for an all-night study session may get Adderall from a friend who was prescribed the pills to treat ADHD. While Adderall and others like it may help at first, ultimately these drugs can cause both short- and long-term psychological and physical issues for students who misuse them.5

My College Student Seems Different. Should I Worry?

With all the changes you see as your college student comes and goes, how do you decide which differences might signal a serious negative change such as drug abuse?

Siobhan Morse, Division Director of Clinical Services at Foundations Recovery Network, says parents should look out for these signs that their kid is experimenting with drugs:

  • Sudden withdrawal from usual activities, especially spending the majority of the time alone or in their room with the door locked
  • “New” friends
  • Tired or excited, often for no discernable reason
  • Mood swings
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Financial signs – sudden upswing in spending or requesting money, money missing from a parent or sibling’s usual storage place
  • Sudden decline in performance in sports or school work
  • Unexplainable unexcused school or sport/practice absences

Morse advises parents to let college kids know you’re concerned for their health, not trying to control their lives from home or interfere with their independence. And don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

“If your child is using drugs, seek help. You are not alone. It’s not your fault,” Morse says. “Addiction is a brain disease. As with any other illness, it can be devastating to the whole family. Please do not try to ‘fix’ this yourself. You and your child deserve help, and good treatment is available. It’s not just a phase.”

If you’ve seen the signs and think your college student is struggling with substance use or addiction, call our toll-free helpline, 678-251-3189, to learn more about your treatment options. At Talbott Recovery, we know young adults have a tougher time achieving sobriety because of the unique life challenges they face.

Our Young Adult Program is intentionally designed to meet the needs of emerging adults and equip them to confidently pursue a life in recovery.

By Pat Matuszak

1 Tartakovsky, Margarita, MS. “How to Talk to Your Kids When You Think They’re Using Drugs.” PsychCentral, 2017.
2 Schulenberg, John E., et al. Monitoring the Future: National survey results on drug use, 1975–2016: Volume II, College students and adults ages 19–55. The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, July 2017.
3 Palmer, Rebekka S., et al. “College Student Drug Use: Patterns, Concerns, Consequences, and Interest in Intervention.” Journal of College Student Development, December 9, 2013.
4 Scott, Julia. “Why Is Your Teenager Acting So Weird? Let a Neurobiologist Explain.” KQED Science, May 22, 2017.
5 Lynn, Jennifer. “Recognizing signs of drug problems in college students home for vacation.” WHYY, January 2, 2018.

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