This past weekend, I was immersed in a yoga teacher training course and on Saturday, when the course was done for the day, I headed to Whole Foods with my husband and son to pick up something. We were headed to the back of the store when someone came from the other direction and crashed her cart into ours. I couldn’t see the person, just the obnoxious crashing, and my fried brain (this teacher training is intense!) was taking all of this stimulation in so when I rounded the corner and saw the person’s identity, I had a moment of confusion. And then the thrill and gratitude set in. My daughter, a freshman at college, was home 4 days earlier than expected, and she and my husband decided to surprise me! I cannot describe the joy of knowing our family of 4 was back together for 4 days longer and sooner than expected!
And even as I sit here in gratitude, I am also deeply sad that the parents of a fellow student will be spending a very different Thanksgiving than they had planned.
When we were visiting our daughter at her college for Parents Weekend a few weeks ago, a fellow freshman went missing after a frat party and his body was found two days later. To add to the parents’ despair, there is a code of silence about what happened at that frat that night, but there is a general assumption that alcohol was involved, given the measures being taken by the school’s administration, and the comments made in the media by the family’s lawyer. It is unfathomable to contemplate what Antonio’s parents have been going through, and will, for the rest of their lives. They have set up an anonymous number where students can text or call in any information that may shed some light on what happened that night.
In the media stories about this tragedy, and a few others that have happened this year on other college campuses, there is the common point that fraternities were involved. The word “hazing” has come up as perhaps being the reason for this excessive amount of alcohol that resulted in young adults dying of acute intoxication. In general, this is the definition used for hazing: “humiliating and sometimes dangerous initiation rituals, especially as imposed on college students seeking membership to a fraternity or sorority.”
I actually think we have this wrong. I have spoken to a lot of people, from current college students to people who are 2-30 years out of college, and I think that what is going on is actually much more subtle than what we think of as hazing. I think it may be more along the lines of peer pressure. But not the kind of peer pressure that is overt “drink this or you’re a loser” - again, a subtle way that people tend to do something, normalize it, and if you don’t join them, you are an outsider, so you end up doing something you may not have otherwise.
About 10% of the alcohol consumed in the US is by kids ages 12-20.
One in 6 US adults binge drinks 4 times a month (defined as 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men, over a 2 hour span).
Alcohol causes 88,000 deaths per year in the US and of those, 1,825 are young people ages 18-24.
Each year, 696,000 college students are assaulted by someone who has been drinking - 97,000 of whom say they were sexually assaulted or raped.
Based on stories people have shared with me, this may be a typical scenario at a fraternity or sports team or similar type of collegiate party: freshmen eager to make friends and have fun and blow off steam join the upperclassmen in drinking copious amounts of alcohol. To the point of puking. And then they drink more. Nobody is pressuring them, telling them they have to do it. But it seems like everyone is doing it and part of them is intrigued, part of them wants to be wild and crazy and fun, part of them is craving a sense of belonging, bonding, feeling accepted and maybe even admired. I can imagine this was the situation at many of these occasions that resulted in tragedy. I imagine that the people who were there truly never really thought through to the consequences part, and if they did, they stopped at hangover. Certainly tragedy was not part of the realm of possibility. And the more alcohol thrown on the fire, the less involved the still-underdeveloped prefrontal cortex became.
I often talk with parents about this whole drinking thing and kids. They want to know, what can they do to lessen the chances that their kids will end up making poor choices? They consider “training” their kids to drink so they “learn how to drink in moderation.” Like the Europeans they say, you know, wine with dinner with the family (note: this is a myth. It does not work. In fact, it’s probably a really bad idea especially if any kind of addiction or mental health issue runs in your family, plus, a child’s brain is at a key developmental stage between the ages of 12-18 and introducing alcohol and other drugs is something you really don’t want to do).
I have also heard parents say to their kids, “just know your limits.” That one boggles my mind. What does this even mean? Know your limit before you get to the point of... puking? Passing out? Hooking up with someone you never would kiss sober, let alone have sex with? Losing your wallet/sense of direction/dignity? Crossing a line you never thought you'd cross? What is the limit? Is this your limit or your child's limit? Do they even know? Do you?
Thanksgiving is in 3 days. Do you know your limits? Do you stop before you reach them? I am guessing not. Of course we don't. Perhaps because the expectation is to gorge, it's even encouraged, and most clothing has spandex today (I certainly find myself only buying stretchy stuff). My point is, sometimes our limits are vague, and sometimes they are "supposed" to be blown through. So when it comes to life and death stuff, maybe we should be a little less vague?
So, as you have your kids home this weekend from college, I would ask you to consider taking the opportunity to talk with your kids about a few things.
1. Social anxiety. We all experience it. Anxiety is the most common mental health complaint, and social anxiety is its most experienced form. I meet lots of adults who are now sober who say they first started drinking (or using other drugs including nicotine) in order to feel less self-conscious and awkward. I also meet lots of adults who cannot imagine not drinking when socializing, going out to dinner, going to their kids’ ____ tournament, going to a fundraiser, going on a date… If we do not experience the discomfort, we will not learn that it is normal, and temporary. We will not develop the skills we need (eg conversational skills) as we navigate social situations our whole life. As I say to my kids, “Do you want to have to rely on alcohol or other drugs to have fun when hanging out with your friends or your partner?”
Parents: how do you feel about this? Do you think you could go one month, 6 months, a year without drinking or smoking weed in any sort of social situation or in anticipation of one?
2. Stress. We can all agree that life on this planet is stressful. It always has been and it always will be. It is the human condition. What may be different today is the way we handle stress. It can be argued that we are currently collectively in a state of intolerance of stress. Tony Robbins says we humans are motivated by two things: seeking pleasure, and avoiding suffering. It's totally normal. But for the first time we have really a perfect storm: the ready availability of all sorts of ways to avoid or numb discomfort (iPhone, pills, weed, booze, etc); a lack of real connection with people and communities who keep us grounded and accountable and help us feel supported; industries that feed off of our hunger to feel better about ourselves; a virtual world that means we are constantly reminded of how stressful the world is and how inadequate we are. And in all of this, we send our kids off to college with a "be careful, know your limits, keep up the good grades, have fun." In 2018, 63% of college students felt "overwhelming anxiety." I have heard kids say, "I am so stressed. I can't wait to go out and get sh*tfaced."
I remember before my daughter went to college, one day she was having a stressful day with some stuff involving work. It was adult-level stuff. And I said to her, "this is adulting." I also remember on other occasions when she would be complaining that she didn't feel like doing something (must have been her laundry, or some other tedious chore). I said, "welcome to adulting" and explained, adulting means doing what needs to be done even though it's a total drag.
Adulting does not mean this:
I know that a lot of these memes are considered funny, and I certainly used to laugh and share stuff like this. So I struggle to write this stuff because I don't want to come across as preachy and pious. I get it. It's one of those things where, as Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, you do better." I know better now. I know how destructive alcohol can be, and I find it particularly irresponsible when certain people and organizations and brands who have a certain amount of influence over parents and kids take a casual stance over something that really does impact mental health and wellness. I think it's one of those things where
We don't know what we don't know.
Parents: how do you relieve stress? Have you fallen into certain habits that perhaps need some updating? What message do you think you are relaying to your kids about coping with stress?
3. Values. What do you value? What is important to you? When you think of your life, where do you hope to be going? How do you want people to think of you? Honesty, honor, integrity, kindness, compassion, loyalty, genuine, sincerity, intelligence, wisdom, maturity, gratitude, humility - if these or other attributes are important to you, are you living this way? In all things? This is not about perfection. It is about intention. It is so easy to compartmentalize our values. A student may think of himself of being a loyal, hard-working person, but then turn into a jackass as soon as Jack Daniels shows up. We humans all do things that seem totally out of character in certain contexts, but if we are not talking regularly with our kids about values, and ask them what theirs are, then chances are, when things get hot and heavy it will be much easier for them to go with the flow, which is very often far below their (and our) usually acceptable standard.
Parents: have you experienced cognitive dissonance - when you identify as being one way, but your actions, choices, priorities don’t support that?
4. Belonging. We all want to belong. We are wired this way, as a survival necessity. When we belonged to a tribe, back in the ancient days, if we got separated from our tribe it was guaranteed death. Today we just need to make sure we have a charged phone and a signal or wifi, so it seems we are connected, but we really aren’t. We need and crave human, in-person connection. We want to be invited to stuff (even if we really don’t want to go), we want to be missed, we want people to laugh with us and share experiences with us. At college, we desperately want this and we want it quickly. Greek organizations provide a built-in tribe. Get accepted and you have your instant friends. The allure is understandable. A lot of these sororities and some of the fraternities actually do some really good stuff. They provide social acceptance, a place to live, a network, and a way to be of service through philanthropy. Boys and men typically have a harder time forming bonds and intimate friendships in our US culture, so frats can be a good way to provide structure to the awkward friendship experience. And their parties provide a fun experience with dancing, themes, a way to meet people. So how can this occur in a healthier way? If a college bans Greek organizations, how can these fun social experiences still be provided? (Because they will find a way, and perhaps more dangerously without the oversight that happens at approved Greek events).
Parents: do you have close friends? A tribe? Do you socialize in ways that are fun, and do not involve alcohol?
5. Entitlement vs. empowerment. I have heard, "If they can do this, so can we." "I have the right to do this." Often in the context of young women asserting their right to be equals to their male counterparts, when it comes to substance use and sexual behavior. This is one of those things where maturity, experience, and education come into play. And in many ways, ties back to the topic of values. Do you value compassion? Is pumping your body and brain with stuff that can lead you to lower your standards, including using another human being (because yes, using people is an equal opportunity habit) an act of compassion? And is engaging in the same behavior that other more privileged people or genders have typically done without social impunity truly empowering? I think this is something that even if we don't feel comfortable directly addressing with our kids, we need to be thinking about.
Just because we can doesn't mean we should.
This is the thing. We cannot assume that our kids will do the right thing, even if they are smart enough to go to a great school. From the choices they make for themselves, to the decisions they make that affect others. I remember when my friend’s son was a toddler, and he was reaching for something that she didn’t want him to have, she said, “I don’t know how I feel about that” to him and I thought, “well, if you don’t know how you feel about it then how do you expect him to know?” So often we make assumptions of what our kids will think or do. But I think we need to be clearer. I remember a boyfriend I had in high school, his dad said to him, “If you ever smoke pot I will be furious with you and hugely disappointed.” So he never did. Why are we so wishy washy about this stuff?
One of the reasons that 40% of teens today are vaping is because no one ever told them not to vape, because quite frankly, this whole thing took us by surprise. We didn’t even know what vaping was until about 2-3 years ago. By the time we adults figured it out, millions of kids were addicted to nicotine. Because of the brilliant (EVIL) marketing, the perception of harm was low for kids. Flavors like grape bubble gum and cool packaging etc, and we adults never educated them about the dangers (again, we didn’t know, in all fairness). But with alcohol, we do know. We know that the World Health Organization this year said that alcohol is not safe in any quantity, for any person. We know that most suicides involve alcohol, and it is the #1 date rape drug. (By the way, I tell my son that if he ever hooks up with a girl he is not in a committed relationship with- ie there is a certain level of trust and respect and agreed-upon boundaries- and she has been drinking, he had better be prepared to accept the possibility and the consequences of being accused of sexual assault). Alcohol greatly increases our chances of cancer, especially breast cancer and colon cancer (cognitive dissonance moment: holding a wine tasting fundraiser for breast cancer). I could go on and on but you get the picture. So why do we tell our kids, “just know your limits” - why do we set the bar so low? (Pardon the pun).
Antonio’s parents, and other parents whose college kids won’t be returning home this week - or ever - are the deeply unlucky ones (grossly inadequate understatement). Because this could have been anyone’s kid. Because we are all part of the problem if we are not looking at the way we are role modeling, or thinking about how we are talking with our kids about this stuff: making friends and how hard it is and it takes time; blowing off steam and handling stress in healthy ways rather than quick fix, mindless ways; looking out for people and standing up for our values, knowing we may feel lonely when we don’t follow the herd; looking at the long-term impact of the decisions we make today, because who we are in 5, 10, 20+ years depends on what we are doing consistently today and going forward.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.