(Photo by Jason Aldag / The Washington Post)

The tidal wave began in 1978. John Belushi chanting, “TOGA! TOGA! TOGA!” in National Lampoon’s “Animal House” ignited a litany of iconic scenes on movie screens over the years, each conveying a narrative of the ultimate partying experience in college.

From Will Ferrell exclaiming, “We’re going streaking!” in “Old School” to the newer generation of the stereotypical frat boy Stiffler in “American Pie 2” or Fat Amy in “Pitch Perfect,” audiences nationwide soak in the drunken, boozy, wild parties that prospective college students have to look forward to or current students are, supposedly, experiencing. This cultural expectation is so pervasive that simply typing “Best College Party Movies” into Google yields an overwhelming six million hits.

Roughly two million students are expected to begin college this fall, representing the class of 2019. As parents of these incoming freshman are busy shopping for dorm room supplies and gathering together immunization records, I know they are also aware of these movie images of the hard partying college students. Some parents may consider it a rite of passage. Other parents might have had experiences not drastically different from Belushi or Stiffler.

Do these images paint a realistic picture of the college experience today, and are parents doing everything they can to prepare their rising freshman for these choices?

“Pre-gaming” before football games, toga parties and fraternity hazing generate tremendous media attention and movie script material. But, the reality is most college students do not engage in high-risk drinking behavior.

In fact, only 35 percent of college students reported binge drinking in the last month in 2013 — an 18-percent decrease since 1991 — according to the government’s Monitoring the Future Survey. That same study found that college students who reported drinking in the past month declined 16 percent over the same time period.

Though the data points toward a decline in underage drinking among college-age students, the first six weeks of freshman year remain a high-risk time for freshmen. Those first six weeks of college are often called the “red zone.” Having seen one child through college and another entering her junior year of college this fall, I know it well. It is the time we urge parents to be the most engaged, the most inquisitive and to prepare their teenager for this difficult period ahead of time. Our own research shows parents are the biggest influence in their child’s decision to drink alcohol – or not.

So, what can parents do to prepare their rising freshman for the challenges of life away, independence, healthy eating, and attending class, as well as how to handle difficult decisions regarding alcohol?  Here are three tips.

  1. Know the risks. Recognize that the first six weeks can be the highest-risk time period for freshmen. Address it head-on with your teenager, share this data with them and give them various scenarios that might arise. Then, ask them how they will deal with each one.
  2. Be clear. Set your expectations for their freshman year with them, communicate clearly and ask their plans for getting involved with activities and events on campus. Further, be prepared for difficult conversations. Did you have a hard-partying college experience? Did you have a bad experience with alcohol? Did you struggle with peer pressure? Your child is likely to ask you questions about your past, and you need to be prepared for how much honest information to give them and what you learned from those experiences. Knowing they can relate to you gives them the tools and confidence to come back to you again, but determining in advance just how honest you want to be helps give parents the confidence to successfully navigate a difficult conversation.
  3. Stay in touch. Consider checking in more frequently during those first six weeks than you might otherwise. Ask open-ended questions when you do talk with your teen, like, “How are you spending your down time?” or “How are things going with your roommate?”

Preparing to send your teenager off to college can be an emotional and stressful transition for everyone involved. While we all appreciate a good laugh with Belushi and Ferrell, the reality is our cultural narrative doesn’t necessarily line up with true college experiences for the majority of students.

Parents are the first and most important factor in preventing underage drinking. Awareness, education and tough conversations can go a long way in helping the new students in the class of 2019 get started with a healthy, positive and responsible college experience.

Your child might have left the nest, but, parents, you’re not done yet.

Ralph S. Blackman is the president & CEO of Responsibility.org. Find more tips for parents on preventing underage drinking here and follow @goFAAR on Twitter.

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