Family Matters

Simple Fix: Family Dinners Help Teens Avoid Drinking and Using Drugs

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If you have reservations tonight for a romantic dinner for you and your spouse, go ahead and cancel them. It’s Family Day — A Day to Eat Dinner with Your Children, designated by all 50 states to highlight how parental engagement reduces children’s risk of drinking and drugging.

On the tenth anniversary of Family Day, newly released statistics from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University show that teens who have infrequent family dinners — less than three per week — are more than twice as likely as teens who eat with their families at least five times each week to say they expect to try drugs in the future. Those same teens are twice as likely to have used tobacco and alcohol and 1.5 times as likely to have used marijuana

The figures come from CASA’s annual teen survey, which this year interviewed 1,055 teenagers ages 12 to 17 and 456 parents of these teens via the Internet.

Everyone knows that experts — and many parents — think eating as a family is important. But this year, for the first time, researchers decided to ask teens whether it matters to them. Even though teens are reputed to want to hang out with their parents about as much they want to clean their rooms, 72% responded that eating dinner often with their parents is very or fairly important. However, only 60% of teens say they eat with their families at least five times a week. “Kids are actually looking for this daily ritual,” says Kathleen Ferrigno, CASA’s director of marketing and director of Family Day.

Don’t get hung up on the dinner hour, however. More important than the actual meal is that parents spend time listening and talking to their children. “We understand sometimes both parents work and sometimes they can’t do it,” says Ferrigno. “It’s about parental engagement.” (More on Why the TV Is Risky for Kids)

Other findings in the report:

*Teens who have fewer than three family dinners per week are twice as likely to be able to get their hands on marijuana or prescription drugs to get high in an hour or less. Teens eating five or more family dinners per week are more likely to say that they do not have any access to marijuana and prescription drugs. This same group is more likely to have friends who use illegal drugs like acid, ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

* Teens who eat as a family at least five times a week are less likely to report having friends who use drugs, smoke or drink alcohol. They are three times likelier to report an excellent relationship with their father, almost three times as likely to say they have an excellent relationship with their mother, and more than twice as likely to say that their parents are very good at listening to them.

*Among teen teetotalers, those who eat frequent dinners with their parents are more likely to credit them as the reason why they shun alcohol and drugs.

“We have long known that the more often children have dinner with their parents the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs. We can now confirm another positive effect of family dinners — that the more often teens have dinner with their parents, the more likely they are to report talking to their parents about what’s going on in their lives,” says Joseph Califano, Jr., CASA founder and chairman and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Oh, about those dinner reservations? Ferrigno’s got some advice vis-a-vis the kids. No need to cancel after all: “Just take them along!”

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