Parents have heard it for years: Family dinners help kids avoid risky behaviors and may even help them in school.
But new research shows that the more frequent these dinners, the better the adolescents fare emotionally, says new research published last week in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
“The effect doesn’t plateau after three or four dinners a week,” says co-author Frank Elgar, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal. “The more dinners a week the better.”
With each additional dinner, researchers found fewer emotional and behavioral problems, greater emotional well-being, more trusting and helpful behaviors toward others and higher life satisfaction, regardless of gender, age or family economics. The study was based on a nationally representative sample of 26,069 Canadian adolescents ages 11 to 15 in 2010.
Participants provided information on the frequency of family dinners and how well they communicate with parents, and answered questions about their emotions, behaviors and life satisfaction.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about how family dinnertime goes,” says Elgar, a psychologist, such as whether the TV is on during the meal, whether parents or siblings are arguing or whether family members are texting or talking on their phones rather than to each other. That’s why he says that while they see a correlation, researchers can’t say family dinners caused the benefits.
“We don’t know if family dinners contribute to mental health, or if mental health and other behavioral problems cause some teenagers to avoid the family dinner,” Elgar says.
Past research about family dinners has suggested a beneficial connection, but a study last year in the journal Child Development cast some doubt. The study of family dinners and breakfasts, based on longitudinal data from 21,400 U.S. kids in kindergarten through eighth grade, found “no association” with improved child outcomes, says lead author Daniel Miller, an assistant professor of social work at Boston University.
He says his study used “a more detailed and nuanced dataset” than previous research, and the statistical analysis added many more controls, such as parental employment, the years of experience the children’s teachers’ had and other variables that could affect academics and behavior.
“Family meals might just be part of a whole lot of activities that families engage in that are good for their kids,” Miller says. “It might look like it’s family meals that matter.”
However, the age of the children could play a role in the different findings, Miller says, because his study focused on younger kids while the new study and many of the earlier ones focused on adolescents.
“When kids get older, they are less likely to eat meals with their parents,” he says. “It may be the case for older kids eating or not eating is a much more important factor than it is for younger kids.”
Miller, who has read the new research, suggests that it “adds to our knowledge by suggesting that parent-adolescent communication accounts for some of the relationship between family meals and adolescent mental health.”
James White, a research associate at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, says his studies have found that frequent family meals and a positive atmosphere at the dinners are associated with lower risks of smoking, binge drinking and drunkenness. But he cautions that “the evidence on whether these associations are causal is not conclusive.”
Part of the allure of family meals is the ritual, says Sharon Fruh, an associate professor of nursing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, who co-authored a 2011 study about family dinner research in The Journal for Nurse Practitioners.
“Rituals are very important to everyone – especially children,” says Fruh, a family nurse practitioner. “They help provide security and structure and they give a sense of belonging.”
Her research review did find that many families eat dinner in front of the TV.
“What researchers are encouraging is turn off all the electronics and not just the television,” she says. “There have been quite a few studies that (found) the more distractions, the less beneficial the communication around the table.”
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