Family Dinners and Their Impact on Teen Substance Use – Insights from Family Engagement Expert Margie Skeer
Why are family dinners important when it comes to preventing substance use? Margie Skeer, ScD, MPH, MSW, assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, has devoted her career to understating the role family dinners play in adolescent risk prevention. She sat down with us to discuss what she’s learned during her years of research.
How do family dinners impact adolescent substance use?
Family dinners can provide a space where parents learn about both the everyday and important aspects of their children’s lives. This can help foster an environment that allows for the three critical aspects of the parent-child relationship:
- Increasing Communication. Dinners can create a comfort level for children that increases communication, which can help when it comes to discussing more sensitive or challenging topics, such as alcohol and drug use.
- Developing a Sense of Trust. Dinners can provide a space for family members to talk about their day, thereby indicating to children that parents are prioritizing them and their interests. This, in turn, conveys a sense of trust, which is essential when initiating and engaging in potentially difficult conversations.
- Identifying Changes in Your Child. Spending consistent and dedicated time together can allow parents to identify patterns in their children and, more importantly, if and when changes in those patterns occur, which could be an indication of problems.
Ultimately, these aspects of the parent-child relationship can help parents to prevent substance use, identify when substance-related problems arise, and get children the help they need.
Why is it so difficult for parents to talk to their kids about drugs and alcohol? What are some effective approaches for starting those conversations?
Parents often find the idea of talking with their children about alcohol and other drugs incredibly awkward. There are several reasons why these conversations can be challenging.
First, alcohol is legal and parents may drink around their child, which is okay if they do so responsibly, but in turn, may feel uncomfortable with a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Second, many parents may have used alcohol or other drugs when they were teens and are not sure what to say if their child asks them about their prior use. Finally, parents may not feel equipped to be able to have conversations because they may not know enough about alcohol or certain drugs to answer questions that may arise.
There are several approaches that parents may find effective to starting these conversations.
- Use Credible Resources. It is very important for parents to use credible resources to educate themselves about alcohol and drugs and what they do to adolescent brains and bodies, and to their lives. A good place to start is the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Drug Facts. Another resource parents may find helpful is “How to Raise a Drug-Free Kid” written by Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the founder of your Center, which did the initial research and reports on the importance of family dinners.
- Starting the Discussion. To start the discussion, I advise parents to do it in a way that feels natural. For example, if a celebrity gets caught using drugs or gets pulled over for drinking while driving, parents can use this as an opportunity to start a conversation about substance use. Additionally, if anything happens in the town or in the child's school where a student is using substances, this presents another chance to talk. Any way it gets started, this is a conversation that should happen often. It could be as simple as saying to your child: “I'm wondering if you know anybody or if you've heard of anybody in your school who is drinking alcohol or using marijuana,” which can be an entryway into the conversation.
- Maintaining an Open Dialogue. Another strategy is for parents to tell their child that they want them to be able to tell them anything, even if it is something that may be hard to talk about. They can convey that they want to make sure that their child gets the right information, rather than hearing it from somebody at school, a friend, or a friend’s older sibling. There are also excellent resources that provide sample starter conversations if parents prefer to have a script to get the conversation started.
What if I can’t have family dinner every day? What should I do?
It is very common for families to feel too busy or not have enough time to have family dinner. Some usual reasons why include: parents' and/or partners' work schedules, errands that need to get done, children's school work or after-school activity schedules, or children's interest in being with their friends rather than their family. While it can be challenging to prioritize family dinners, parents also value them for several reasons, including building or maintaining stability in the family, using dinners as a time to speak with their children, making parent-child relationships stronger, teaching children about values and life, and maintaining a family tradition that they had as children.
Families may need to try different strategies to get around these challenges. One method is to try to increase the number of dinners families eat together by one for a few weeks. For example, go from zero to one, or from three to four. Another strategy is to eat snacks together before activities, if dinners are not possible. And if it is not possible to eat dinners together, try another meal, such as breakfast.
If it’s not feasible to eat meals as a family, parents should try to find 30 minutes on most days to connect with their child, whether it be in the car on the way to school, or taking a walk together in the morning before school or other activities. It is not the dinner, per se, that creates the protective effect; rather it is the time that parents spend together with their children that is what is important. Dinner provides a natural time for these interactions, but if that cannot happen at dinner, it can happen at any other time, and it should be consistent.
When we say “family dinner,” we don’t mean everyone eating in silence or parents yelling at kids. How would you describe a productive, healthy family dinner?
A productive, healthy family dinner is one where the atmosphere is relaxing and as stress-free as possible, which can be challenging at times. It is important that all members of the family get a chance to talk and are engaged in conversation, and children are made to feel that their parents want them there and value their presence.
The family dinner should be a time for bonding and opportunity for both superficial and deep conversations. Whenever possible, dealing with major problems that should be addressed one-on-one should stay outside of family dinners – unless it is appropriate for all members of the family to hear. Similarly, family dinners are not the best time to announce criticisms or negative consequences for problem behaviors.
Margie Skeer, ScD, MPH, MSW
Margie is an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine