Family Meals and Adolescent Mental Health
One of the things that stands out in my mind from my childhood was that my family always had dinner together. Having dinner together meant that, around the table were my parents, brother and grandparents. During those dinners all of us engaged in discussions about school, family happenings and local and international politics. Everyone chattered and, at least as far as my memory is concerned, a lot of fun. There were times when everyone was serious and other times when there was lots of laughter and everything in between. Now, there is research documenting the fact that family dinners are good for everyone in the family, especially teenagers.
According to a study co-authored by McGill professor Frank Elgar, Institute for Health and Social Policy, regular family suppers contribute to good mental health in adolescents. According to the study, "family meal times are a measurable signature of social exchanges in the home that benefit the well-being of adolescents, regardless of whether or not they feel they can easily talk to their parents."
This study was conducted in Canada and included a national sample of 26,069 adolescents aged 11 to 15 years of age. As the researchers state, "Family mealtimes are opportunities for open family interactions which present teaching opportunities for parents to shape coping and positive health behaviors such as good nutritional choices, as well as enable adolescents to express concerns and feel valued, all elements that are conducive to good mental health in adolescents."
One caveat is that I doubt the conclusion that teens benefitted whether or not it was easy to talk to parents. In my years of experience as a therapist, I encountered some patients who reported that dinnertime consisted of the children having to sit silently at the table. In at least one case, the father ruled over the table and family as a tyrant. No one was allowed to speak at dinner and that included the mother. This type of authoritarian atmosphere is not conducive to mental health regardless of how often the family dined together.
Generally speaking, authoritarian families are found to be repressive and damaging to mental health. On the other hand, authoritative families, in which there are clear rules and boundaries but open discussion and airing of opposing opinions, allow for growth and development.
What are your experiences with family and family dinners? Your comments are welcome and encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD
(but don't stifle interaction at table as seen in one case).