OP-ED Family Dinners Help Combat Youth Substance Abuse
Celebrate parental engagement
Office of Governor Bill Walker
September 28th is Family Day which is part of a national movement to celebrate parental engagement as an effective tool to help keep America’s children substance free. I am pleased to serve as Alaska’s Honorary Chair. Research at casafamilyday.org shows that children with hands-on, engaged parents are far less likely to smoke, drink or use other substances and that having regular family dinners can go a long way as a preventative tool.
Across all age groups, Alaska has one of the highest per capita alcohol consumption rates in the nation. The prevalence of alcohol dependence and abuse, at 14%, is twice the national average of 7%. Among high school students, 75% have used alcohol and 26.5% had a binge drinking episode consuming 5 or more drinks within a couple of hours in the last 30 days.
Substance use and abuse has a profound impact on Alaska’s youth. It contributes to injuries, school drop-out rates, teen pregnancy, interpersonal violence, suicide attempts, depression, youth crime and many other social problems. These statistics and Alaska’s strategies to prevent underage drinking can be found at dhss.alaska.gov but there are also effective family strategies that can be employed.
While September 28th is a day to raise awareness, the key to success is family engagement every day of the year. The simplest way to do this is by sitting down for dinner together as a family. Sounds easy enough but in this hustle bustle age, for many, it is easier said than done. Harvard’s Family Dinner Project, the familydinnerproject.org urges parents to sacrifice busy-ness for what is deemed the “magic” of family dinners.
Research has shown that regular family meals have positive impacts on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Specific benefits include improved academic performance, higher self-esteem, stronger resilience and lower risks of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, depression, eating disorders and obesity. Family dinner provides predictability, stability, and commitment to one another. Conversation might not always be free-flowing, especially during the teenage years, but that table provides a forum, if not a safe haven, for families to gather and regroup on a daily basis.
One friend says that nightly table talk with her two preteens involves everyone sharing the best and the worst thing that happened in their day. Even the children’s friends engage and if the parents forget to ask, the children bring it up as it has become an important part of their day.
We had a similar approach when raising our four children. As the children got older and less chatty about their lives, we enforced “conversational basketball.” To avoid typical teen one word answers, we would say, “Okay, with that question, I have now thrown the ball to you, it is in your court. You pick it up and toss it back to me with a good response.” As adults they have all resumed their chattiness and love family dinners. They laugh now when reminded of the conversational basketball challenges of yesteryear.
Parental engagement also involves setting a good example, establishing and enforcing rules and boundaries, keeping communication lines wide open, knowing your children’s friends, monitoring their whereabouts and being involved in their lives and activities. Incorporating religious and spiritual practices into family life and establishing traditions can also prove beneficial.
Other important times we shared as a family included camping, fishing, skiing, road trips, game nights, Sunday church and brunch, backyard soccer and baseball, bike rides on the Coastal Trail and nightly family prayer time where each child was encouraged to share a prayer request. Again, as the children got older and family devotional time was announced, it was often met with eye-rolls and excuses. The reward now, however, is seeing some of these same traditions being established by our children with their children.
The options and opportunities for family engagement are endless but the challenge is prioritizing and making it habitual, fun, meaningful and engaging. The investment of time in our children can occur with minimal or no expense but the dividends can be immeasurable. Remember a tuna sandwich and some table talk with your teen can make a difference. It’s “food for thought.” Consider kicking off a new commitment to increased family time by planning something special for National Family Day on September 28th. Tools, tips and additional research are available at casafamilyday.org and the familydinnerproject.org.
First Lady Donna Walker is a mother, grandmother, attorney and former OCS caseworker. She serves as Honorary Chair of Alaska’s Family Day and Alaska Children’s Trust.