Monday, July 16, 2012

Connecting Beyond Family Dinner

In the Sunday, July 1, 2012 edition of the New York Times, I ran across an article by the authors of a study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy this Spring. The authors of the study are Ann Meier, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota, and Kelly Musick, Associate Professor of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University. While there are a number of studies linking family dinner time to good parenting outcomes, this study shows that there are other factors that play a role, and other ways to connect besides family mealtimes. This study might be a good reality check for parents of teens, who may be realizing family dinners are sometimes extremely difficult to corral busy teens and parents into.

Meier and Musick studied factors from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of teens, surveyed twice in middle school and/or high school, and again in young adulthood, between 18 and 26. Both the teens and their parents answered detailed questions about family patterns, living arrangements, and income. They focused on how the frequency of family dinners correlated with these three indicators of adolescent well-being: depression, drug/alcohol use, and delinquency (this included a number of behaviors, such as shoplifting).

This study supported previous studies that if you check in at any one point in time with teens, then family dinners do correlate with higher levels of well-being. However, if the researchers dug deeper and controlled for additional ways in which the families who ate together and didn't eat together also tended to differ, interesting details came to light. These two types of families often had a different quality of relationship with their teen, including the amount of activities with a parent and teen, seeing movies together, helping with schoolwork/projects, monitoring curfews and clothing choices, and different parental resources (income, one vs. two parents in the household).

Without controlling for these other factors, 73% of teens in their sample who rarely ate dinner with parents reported drug and alcohol use, compared with 55% of teens who regularly ate dinner with parents. However, if the researchers controlled for these factors, the differences in alcohol/drug use was cut in half between the two groups, from 18% to 9%.

When the researchers looked at how family dinners affect teens over time, the benefits appeared thin for the impact of family dinners on drug and alcohol use, mental health,or delinquency rates. It may, however, impact other things that weren't tracked, such as healthy eating patterns. While eating meals together and visiting and relating with your teens during mealtime is always a positive, these researchers encourage parents to think creatively. Do dinner together as often as you can, but also realize that driving time, leisure activities together like seeing movies, and being involved in many other little ways with your teen at home also count. Don't feel guilty. Try to maximize your connections with your teen when and where you can, and meals are not the only place good connections can happen. The most important thing that needs to happen is your teen knowing you are available, interested, willing to listen, and care about them.

No comments:

Post a Comment