Teens and Table Talk

Teens and Table Talk

By Kate Land, MD, FAAP |

Before my kids were born and when they were very small, I used to fear the teen years. Visions of my sweet cuddling tots turned into Goth, rude teens hiding in their rooms with ear buds in danced through my brain.

Now with two, nearly three teens at home I no longer fear. Their reality is a thing of wonder to me. They are not rude. Quiet at times, but not rude. I have to pull out the ear buds all too often but, they do not sulk behind closed doors. And most reassuring, they are still quite cuddly – when they want to be. Given this reassuring state, I can be taken aback when they momentarily act like “real” teens.

Family dinnertime is sacred in my house. Even through change, upheaval and redefinition of family itself, dinners together come first. Last night at dinner, I asked the kids why they thought dinners together were so important. My middle child said with a snarky tone, “Because they keep us connected at the heart.” Her hands acted this out with fingers first intertwined and then in the shape of a heart. Eyes rolled. But then, thankfully there came a smile.

The evidence continues to pour in — eating meals with family is good for kids.

In 2010 a study of nearly 9,000 4 year-old children published in the journal Pediatrics concluded (in part) that young children who regularly ate the evening meal as a family had a significantly lower prevalence of obesity.

A 2011 meta-analysis in Pediatrics examines three concerns: obesity, unhealthy eating and disordered eating. It found that each of these negative behaviors was decreased in children and teens that ate at least three meals a week with their family. A study of almost 3000 ethnically diverse 8th-graders showed that their parents more often discussed healthy eating and served healthy options if they ate together.

Frequent family meals also appear to have a positive effect on teens’ emotional well-being, risk of depression, and risk-taking behaviors. Meals taken together are indicators of healthy family functioning. Teens from single-parent or step-family homes have increased risk of a variety of negative behaviors and yet, eating together appears to reduce this association – specifically with reduced rates of sexual activity, alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis use.

What exactly constitutes a family dinner is also a focus of study.  Last fall a small study in the journal Obesity asked this question and came up with some concrete ideas. Parents and kids both had lower BMIs if they sat together in the kitchen or dining room for dinner. Boys’ BMIs were lower if they remained there until everyone was done. Breakfasts together also count.

An observational study of families whose dinners were videotaped had some interesting conclusions. Dinners do not have to be long or elaborate affairs but need to have at least one adult present in order to be associated with their teens having a lower BMI and higher vegetable intake. The families that succeed in these health measures were also observed to have positive interpersonal interactions at mealtimes: they shared information and expressed feelings and concern for each other. They had clear rules for behavior at the table and shared roles in dinner service. In the May 2010 issue of Journal of Health Psychology, teens’ experience at the mealtimes was found to be connected with a decreased rate of substance use.

Looking at all of this evidence makes it very clear. We need to eat dinner with our kids for the sake of their health.

The dinners do not have to be fancy or long but the behavior around the table counts. We need to cultivate ways to make our dinnertime conversations meaningful, interesting and thought-provoking.

Sure, some of the research shows a benefit to simply sitting around the table together but, you might as well have fun while you sit there. Around my table, through the years, we have talked about almost everything. Any topic is acceptable if brought up with good intention and true curiosity. Politics, sex, religion? We have covered them all. We have played games. I have repeatedly been accused of being a pain about their manners. There have been giggles, anger, and tears. We rate the meals so I know whether to cook the recipes again. Lots of meals have been rejected. And instead of cooking, many pizzas have been ordered.

Now with so many sports teams, part-time jobs, extracurricular activities, and social engagements that my head spins keeping it all straight, we don’t all sit together every night. But, whoever is at home sits and talks. Sometimes I wait up and eat with the late-after-practice arrivers. Sundays we all meet – even if other invitations have to be turned down. I’d like to think this commitment has paid off through the years.

My eldest can be a bit quiet. I generalize this into fitting his teen boy status – they all keep to themselves a bit don’t they? Once not too long ago, I challenged him on his laconic nature. I asked if he would talk to me when it really mattered? He stopped, looked at me and said yes. I asked why? How could I be sure? He explained that he knew I could handle talking about anything. After all, we do just that on any given Sunday around the table.

Kate Land, MD, FAAP is a general pediatrician who  views the growing intersection between traditional health care and technology as an important tool to engage parents and patients. She began work at Kaiser Permanente after graduating from University of California, Davis Medical School and its Pediatrics residency. During her time at KP, she served as the Chief of the Department of Patient Education for the Napa-Solano Area, helped to create Kaiser’s  online parenting newsletters and designed tools allowing families to manage their health care online. You can also find her on Twitter as @KPKiddoc and on her blog at mdmommusings.com.