Family bonding over meals reaps big benefits for kids

In a culture built on speed, it can sometimes be difficult to slow down and take time for the more mundane activities in life, like eating dinner as a family. But experts say that’s exactly what you should do to raise drug-free kids. They’ve chosen Monday, Sept. 24 as Family Day 2012 to help encourage families to begin a habit that lasts all year.

Researchers at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University have spent more than a decade studying the effects of quality family time on a child’s growth and development, and have found that teens who have infrequent family dinners, described as fewer than five to seven times per week, are more likely to use alcohol, tobacco or marijuana.

“The family bonding that happens at mealtime is really critical to staying connected with your child,” says Margaret Sotham, director of the South Miami Drug-Free Coalition, which is sponsored by Informed Families. “Parents have a chance to ask questions and really find out what’s happening in their kids’ lives. It may take a few tries to get the conversation going, but eventually, your kids will open up – especially if you start when they’re young.”

A 2011 study by CASA found that teens who didn’t have frequent meals with their families were almost four times likelier to use tobacco; more than twice as likely to use alcohol; two and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana. Also, the teens were almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future. The report also noted that those who believe their siblings have used or are using substances are significantly more likely to use tobacco (five-and-a-half times), alcohol (almost three times) and marijuana (six-and-a-half times).

For parents who have trouble starting the conversation, keep these tips in mind: Understand that addiction is a disease and that the developing brain of an adolescent is particularly susceptible.

Start talking with your kids at an early age so that your child is comfortable talking to you about “difficult” topics such as tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.

Acknowledge that many people use marijuana, alcohol and tobacco; explain that tobacco and prescription drugs are also risky and can rewire your brain to increase the chance that you will get hooked.

Listen carefully to your child. Educate yourself so you can answer his or her questions, even the more difficult questions that come as they get older.

Write a family “contract” established to make your opinions on all types of drug use clear. Be consistent with family rules.

Most importantly, says Sotham, be a model of healthy behavior for your child. “Kids learn what they live, so make sure you’re setting the example you want them to follow,” she says.

For more help talking to your child about alcohol and drugs, visit or contact Margaret Sotham at South Miami Drug-Free Coalition, 305-856-4037 or

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