As tweens turn into teens, parents can have an increasingly hard time getting messages across. A new study suggests one way for parents to keep up communication: Sit down together for dinner.
The results show that while parent-child communication generally declines as kids go through middle school, eating meals together can help protect against this conversation dip.
Kids who frequently ate dinner with their parents when they were in sixth grade saw less of a change in communication with their folks over three and a half years than kids who rarely or never ate dinner with their parents in sixth grade.
The results suggest family dinners in a child's early adolescence can set the stage for long-lasting communication.
"Even if they're less likely to have meals with the family as they go into high school, if they're having them when they're younger, it's still a point of connection and it’s a good thing and can have a lasting impact," said study researcher Jayne Fulkerson, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing.
The results are based on surveys of nearly 5,000 middle school students in Chicago public schools. Participants were surveyed at the beginning and end of sixth grade and again at the end of seventh and eighth grade.
Subjects were asked how frequently they ate dinner with their parents (never, hardly even, sometimes, a lot or all the time.). They were also asked how often their parents had a conversation with them that lasted more than 10 minutes, praised them when they did well, asked them where they were going and asked how they were doing in school.
The protective effect of family dinners held even after the researchers took into account other factors that could impact the results including race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and who the child lived with.
Family meals are a good opportunity to stay connected with children, Fulkerson said. "You might have a better sense of what's going on in their lives and be able to understand what they're going though more," she said.
Fulkerson suggests avoiding topics that might be a point of conflict for parents and children, such as grades and homework.
The fact that the study was carried out over several years makes the researchers more confident the beneficial effect of family dinners on parent-child communication is real.
However, the researchers can't distinguish whether the children kept up good communication because they ate family meals together, or they ate meals together because they already got along well with their parents in sixth grade. Future studies can help better clarify the reasons.
The results are published in the June issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
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