Want to Reduce Teens’ Use of Drugs? Study Says Sit Down to Dinner

One powerful antidote to teen drug addiction could be found in a simple family dinner at home, according to new research. A 2009 report from Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) says teenagers who sit down to dinner at home, with the family, less than three times a week have a risk for trying smoking or marijuana that is two times higher than teens who sit down to a family dinner five times each week.

The study also found that teens who have few family dinners during the week are also at greater risk to experiment with alcohol, and two times more likely to use other types of drugs later in life. Give these teens an hour, and they’re also more likely to know how to find drugs like marijuana or prescription drugs than their peers who have family dinners throughout the week.

In terms of dinnertime distractions, parents may want to cut them out. The report says in teens’ households where people are using their cell phones or computers, even though they are only making it to the table a few times a week, the teens may have a risk three times greater than their peers to try smoking or marijuana. They may also have a risk of drinking alcohol that is more than double their peers who don’t have outside activities going on during dinner.

It’s the benefits on a social level and the emotional connections that happen during dinner that can lead to a reduced risk of trying drugs, says Elizabeth Planet of CASA. Planet says there’s also a connection between adolescents who sit down to more dinners with the family and better grades and healthier parent relationships.

More than half of teenagers say they are sitting down to dinner with their family around five times weekly, a figure of 59 percent, say report researchers. However, it’s not a long meal – most dinners span about a half hour – but it’s the frequency and reducing outside distractions that seems to make an impact.

The findings are even more significant when it comes to pre-teens. The CASA report said of youth aged 12 and 13 years, those that don’t have very many family dinners during the week have a risk six times higher than their peers of trying marijuana. They have a risk four times higher than their peers with frequent family meals to try tobacco.

Joseph Califano, Jr., founder of CASA and previous U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, says the premise is simple: ten years’ of research indicates that the act of teenagers having frequent evening meals with their families means they have a lower risk of experimenting with alcohol and drugs. The classic tradition of dinner gives kids a message that their parents are interested in them and will support them, Califano says.

Report authors say not to stress about the actual meal itself; just be there for conversation and to connect with your child. They also recommend rearranging schedules to make the meal a priority, and let teens help plan or prepare it.