David Watkins, Bear River Health Department

Parents have many concerns for their teens: underage drinking, marijuana, opioid misuse, risky sexual behavior, internet safety, depression and suicide. The list goes on. It’s hard to stay informed on it all, so how can parents prevent their children from becoming involved in these behaviors?

Family meals are one way for parents to keep their children safe from alcohol, drugs and other risky behavior. And, lucky for time-strapped parents, it’s not the presentation or the type of the food on the table that matters, but the conversation and engagement that happen around the table.

According to a study from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens who eat dinner with their families five or more times a week report their parents know a lot about what is going on in their lives. Teens that reported having a “less-than-very-good” relationship with their parents were more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.

The study also shows that teens who eat dinner with their families five or more times a week are less likely to have high levels of stress. Teens who report having high levels of stress are also more likely to use marijuana, alcohol and tobacco.

Family meals not only build strong family relationships, which in turn helps reduce substance misuse, but studies show more benefits come from having family dinner at least five times a week:

  • Lower teen pregnancy rates
  • Lower depression rates
  • Higher grade-point averages
  • Higher self-esteem
  • Lower obesity rates
  • Lower rates of eating disorders in children and teens

Parents Empowered (a campaign aimed at reducing underage drinking) teaches parents three important skills for preventing risky behavior in teens: bonding, boundaries and monitoring.

Having a strong family bond is one of the best ways to prevent youth from engaging in risky behaviors. When children feel a connection to their parents, they are more likely to listen to and follow rules. A strong family attachment is built by spending time together having fun, working hard and supporting each other.

Children need clear boundaries. Parents often talk to their children about risky behaviors, including underage drinking, too late. Talking to children early and often helps ensure children know and understand what is expected of them. Parents need to communicate where the line is, and not to cross it. Clear consequences should be established and maintained.

After building a strong bond, and setting boundaries, parents need to monitor their children. This includes knowing where and what children are doing, whom they are with and when they will return. It also includes monitoring cell phone, social media and internet use.

During family mealtime, parents create a bonding opportunity. They have time to discuss and make clear family rules, and learn of activities their children are involved in that require further monitoring.