WUFT News

Family dinners affect adolescent mental health, study says

By on April 5th, 2013

By Lisa DeRuiter – WUFT contributor

Adolescents may be gaining more than just nutritional benefits from family dinners.

A study published in the April issue of the “Journal of Adolescent Health” found the frequency of family dinners can affect the mental health of adolescents.

Frank Elgar, the study’s co-author and an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal, said in an email interview the results of the study were straightforward, echoing what common sense would tell a person about the benefits of family togetherness.

“What surprised us was how consistent the effects were,” Elgar said. “The link between family dinners and mental health held no matter how often we do this. There’s no magic number. The effect doesn’t plateau after four or five meals per week.”

Researchers found significantly better mental health with each additional dinner in every area they studied, including emotional problems, behavioral problems, pro-social behavior, positive well-being and life satisfaction.

The study, titled “Family Dinners, Communication and Mental Health in Canadian Adolescents,” was conducted to describe the association between family connectedness — or time spent together — and both the positive and negative aspects of mental health.

“We had no interest in nutrition or food per se,” Elgar said. “Counting family dinners is just a simple way of measuring the time that families spend together.”

For the study, researchers used data from nearly 26,000 Canadian adolescents living in all parts of the country. The information was gathered from surveys the participants completed at school.

The study was part of the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children research network, which is an international network of researchers in 43 countries who carry out regular assessments of adolescent health.

Elgar and the other researchers began studying family communication and adolescent mental health because they were interested in social class differences and thought family support and communication might be a resilience factor for youths from low-income families.

But the results of the study showed social class, age and gender do not affect the associations between the frequency of family dinners and mental health.

“Family dinners appear to be equally good for all,” Elgar said.

Bhakti Cohen, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Gainesville, said she agrees with the study results, believing firmly in the benefits of family dinners.

She has read studies that found adolescents who partake in family meals are less likely to be obese, use drugs, drink underage, smoke and be sexually active. They also achieve better grades.

When hormones kick in, she said, adolescents begin to pull away from their families and become independent adults, but they still need good boundaries and guidelines. A family dinner is a good way to help kids communicate with their parents, she said.

“When parents show an interest in their children, the children feel like they have a voice,” Cohen said. “If you have parents who are genuinely interested in what their children are doing, it benefits the children in their ability to communicate and teaches children how to be good listeners.”

Cohen works with a wide range of children in her practice—from foster children to those from wealthy homes—and in each case the youths with families who eat dinner together are more mentally healthy and stable.

Victor Harris, a family and youth development assistant professor at UF, is co-authoring a report titled “Benefits of Family Meals” that uncovered important social, behavioral, health and educational benefits of family meals for youth.

He said some additional benefits of family meals are a reduction of anxiety and depression in children; an increased feeling of togetherness, coherence and solidarity; increased emotional and social bonding; and relaxing, talking and laughing as a family unit.

“Parental warmth, parental connectedness and parental monitoring are three keys to effective parenting,” Harris said. “Family mealtime can provide a context for the parent and child to interact and bond in each of those ways.”

The mealtime also provides a period for parents to communicate with their adolescents, which is critical to their development, he said.

“When parents are perceived as both available to talk to and responsive through supportive communication, adolescents tend to feel like they have a haven of safety and support they can go to when they are experiencing problems,” Harris said.

Elgar said he realizes family dinners are less common now compared to a few decades ago. Parents today are busy and have conflicting schedules. Everyone eats with his or her cellphone or in front of a television.

“The lesson … is that family mealtime is an important time of the day to connect, feel listened to and share things that happen throughout the day,” Elgar said. “And it’s this time together—not meals per se—that supports mental health and well-being.”


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