The Magic of Family Dinners: There is a strong inverse correlation between the frequency of family dinners and teen substance abuse

[ By on April 01, 2013 ]

The Magic of Family Dinners

For the past couple of decades, Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) has surveyed thousands of teenagers and their parents about drug and alcohol use. While many of the trends are increasingly alarming, one finding has remained consistent and comforting. There is a strong inverse correlation between the frequency of family dinners and teen substance abuse. It’s not the herbs in the baked chicken or Grandma’s secret ingredient in the chocolate cake. It’s much simpler than that. Adolescents who spend time interacting with their parents and siblings are much less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.

Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven times per week), those who have infrequent dinners (fewer than three times per week) are almost four times likelier to have used tobacco, more than twice as likely to have used alcohol, and two and half times likelier to have used marijuana. A majority of the teens who reported dining together said that “sharing, catching up, and talking” were the best parts of the night. And all the kids surveyed were more than three times as likely to say they would like to spend MORE time with their parents. Overall, children who eat dinner with their families report stronger interpersonal relationships. It’s these bonds that help carry them through the rocky waters of adolescence and allow them to make safer choices.

A family dinner is a wonderful occasion to check in with your kids: ask them about an interesting experience they had that day, explore their opinions around a current event, assess any mood changes, or just laugh together. However, implementing it can be quite challenging in an environment of long days at the office, piles of homework, multiple after-school and evening extracurriculars, and limited time or energy to prepare a meal. At Freedom Institute, we recognize that any time that parents can share with their children is positive. After all, parents are the most influential people in their children’s lives.

If it’s hard to get your family members to gather in one place at one time, here are some tips:

  1. Make family dinner time a priority. Have all family members agree to a day and time at least 48 hours in advance. (Or even better, have a few  “reserved” nights of the week.)
  2. Mark it on the communal calendar or have a visible reminder.
  3. Make attendance non-negotiable, especially with a spouse or teenager who has a busy schedule. (Communicate to friends, coaches, bosses, etc. that family dinner is very important and you need to keep that day/time clear.)
  4. Enlist your child’s support in grocery shopping, finding recipes, and preparing the meal. If you have a resistant teen, be creative with the menu. (“Dad’s Choice” night, “Eating in Italy” night, etc.)
  5. Share the chores and clean the dishes with the whole family. (Lots of bonding can take place over the sink.)
  6. Keep conversation lively. Agree with your spouse or parenting partner not to raise certain subjects that add tension (i.e., grades, boyfriend, job, etc.).
  7. Ask open-ended questions at dinner that elicit a dialogue. (“What was the most interesting thing you saw today?” “Was there anything hard about today?”)
  8. If you can’t add another family dinner to the schedule, but want more time together, consider adding a family breakfast/weekend brunch OR designate some family entertainment time (play a board game, do a craft together, work on a home improvement project, etc.).

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