The Link Between Family Dinner and Substance Abuse

Photo used with permission from Microsoft.

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of the family dinner in teaching children good eating habits.

The other day I came across a September 2012 white paper entitled “Family Dinners VIII” by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASAColumbia). CASAColumbia has been writing a version of this paper for a decade. Over time, they have consistently found “a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their using drugs, drinking or smoking.”

The 2012 study found that only 57 percent of teens aged 12-17 reported having dinner with their families at least five times a week, a percentage that has remained constant over the last ten years. The statistics are rather jarring.

Know What’s Going On In Your Children’s Lives

The study found that knowing what is going on in your children’s lives makes it less likely that they will use and abuse drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Consider these statistics:

  • Compared to teens who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week), teens who have frequent family dinners are one and a half times more likely to say their parents know a great deal or a fair amount about what’s really going on in their lives (92 percent vs. 60 percent) and five times less likely to say their parents know very little or nothing at all about what’s really going on in their lives (8 percent vs. 40 percent).
  • Compared to teens who say their parents know a great deal or a fair amount about what’s really going on in their lives, teens who say their parents know very little or nothing at all are one and a half times likelier to have used marijuana (21 percent vs. 13 percent) and one and a half times likelier to have used alcohol (40 percent vs. 24 percent).

Family Dinner and High-Quality Relationships

The report also finds that teens having frequent family dinners are more likely to report having high-quality relationships with their parents. These high-quality relationships translate into lower rates of substance use and abuse:

  • Compared to teens who say they have an excellent relationship with Dad (biological or stepfather), teens who have a less than very good relationship with their father are almost four times likelier to have used marijuana (23 percent vs. 6 percent), twice as likely to have used alcohol (35 percent vs. 16 percent) and two and a half times as likely to have used tobacco (15 percent vs. 6 percent).
  • Compared to teens who say they have an excellent relationship with Mom (biological or stepmother), teens who have a less than very good relationship with their mother are almost three times likelier to have used marijuana (26 percent vs. 9 percent), two and a half times as likely to have used alcohol (45 percent vs.18 percent) and two and a half times likelier to have used tobacco (16 percent vs. 6 percent).

Make Time for Family Dinner

Clearly, there is a relationship (correlation) between family dinner and substance abuse. But family dinners do not necessarily cause lower rates of substance abuse. There could be a third factor driving both frequent family dinners and low rates of substance abuse.

The report results, however, make a good case for focusing on family dinner, at least as a starting point. First, at the family dinner, you have an opportunity to learn about your children’s lives by asking questions and listening closely to the answers. And the learning goes both ways. I remember my parents discussing work over dinner. It made me believe that having a career was important and fulfilling. I felt included in my dad’s work life, even though he traveled a lot.

Second, in these resume-stuffing, distraction-filled times of sports, homework, the smartphone, working late and commuting far, the family dinner has to be a true priority if it is ever going to happen. It is easy to let life’s quotidian tasks get in the way of relationships. Making time for family dinner is a surefire way to signal to your children that you value them.

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