Making Family Dinner a Priority May Lower Your Teens Use of Drugs and Alcohol

With busy schedules, late nights at the office and must-see TV, it may be getting harder for you to make sure your family sits down together for dinner.

Not making family dinners a priority, however, may increase the chances that your teen will abuse alcohol and other drugs.

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A new report by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that, when compared to teens who have family dinner at least five times per week, teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week are more likely to engage in a number of dangerous behaviors:

  • Twice as likely to use tobacco or marijuana
  • More than one and a half times more likely to use alcohol
  • Twice as likely to expect to try drugs in the future
  • Twice as likely to have friends who use marijuana and Ecstasy
  • More than one and a half times likelier to have friends who drink, abuse prescription drugs and use methamphetamines
  • Almost one and a half times likelier to have friends who use illegal drugs such as cocaine, acid and heroin

Distractions at the Table

Even if you do sit down for regular family dinners, your efforts may be sidetracked by the use of Blackberries or laptops, or talking or texting on cell phones. The CASA report showed that teens who have infrequent family dinners with distractions at the table are three times likelier to use marijuana and tobacco, and two and a half times likelier to use alcohol.

“The magic of the family dinner comes not from the food on the plate but from who’s at the table and what’s happening there,” said Elizabeth Planet, CASA’s vice president and director of special projects.

Benefits of Eating Together

The good news is that about 60 percent of teens and parents reported having dinner with their families at least five times a week, a number that has remained steady over the past several years, according to the CASA report. The average family dinner lasts about 35 minutes.

“Over the past decade and a half of surveying thousands of American teens and their parents, we’ve learned that the more often children have dinner with their parents, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs,” said Joseph A. Califano Jr., CASA’s founder and chairman. “I urge parents to arrange their schedules and their outside activities so that they can have frequent family dinners. If they do so, they’ll discover what a difference dinner makes.”

Teens who have frequent family dinners are more likely to do well in school and have excellent relationships with their parents. That is because communication between parents and their teens increases when there is a daily ritual, and makes your teens feel like you are more connected to them and more interested in their lives.

Family dinners also increase the chance that your teenagers will have a more nutritious meal, since they won’t be grabbing a pre-made dinner out of the freezer. Children whose families eat together generally eat more fruits, vegetables and foods that are higher in vitamins.

One Harvard study even claims that family dinners are important contributors to the language development of your teen. With adults at the table, topics can be educational to teens while getting them engaged in conversation.

“The emotional and social benefits that come from family dinners are priceless,” Planet said. “Having dinner as a family is one of the easiest ways to create routine opportunities for parental engagement and communication, two keys to raising drug-free children.”

Keys to a Worthwhile Family Dinner

Don’t be fooled by the idea that just sitting down at the same table to eat dinner qualifies as an actual family dinner. The following are some ways for you to make family dinners a worthwhile experience:

  • Eliminate all distractions. When your family sits down at the dinner table, make sure there are no cell phones, laptops or other electronic devices that can cause one member of the family to withdraw.
  • Keep the TV off. It is tempting for many families to leave the TV on as background noise. But this only results in at least one person focusing their attention on what’s on the screen.
  • Have dinner at the same time every night. Hold everyone in the family accountable for taking time out of their day to be part of family dinners. By having dinner at the same time every night, it is easier for everyone to organize their busy schedules and make more of an effort to be there.
  • Make meals engaging. With everyone sitting down and giving their attention, it’s the perfect time to ask your teens about their day, discuss books they are reading or share stories of your own teenage experiences. Get your teens engaged in conversations about current events, or even where they want to go on the next family vacation. This will let them know that you value their thoughts and opinions.
  • Don’t talk business. Don’t use family dinner as a time to complain about work, or about the fact that your teen didn’t take out the trash. Nobody will look forward to getting together if there is nothing interesting to talk about, or if they are going to get punished.
  • Get everyone involved in the dinner. At the dinners, plan what you’ll have for dinner for the next night, or weekly. Rotate who cooks and who does the dishes, so that everyone gets to participate. Even if your teens complain about this, it will provide them an opportunity to take responsibility and get involved in family activities.
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