Family Meals Can Help Teen Girls Avoid Drugs, Alcohol

But the study didn't find a similar effect on boys

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HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, July 23, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Eating meals together as a family can reduce a teen girl's risk of turning to alcohol or drugs, a new study suggests.

In families who ate at least five meals a week together, the teen girls were much less likely to drink alcohol, or smoke marijuana or cigarettes five years later, said study author Marla Eisenberg, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

The same effect wasn't seen for boys in this study, although Eisenberg can't say why.

"One of the key findings we have here is for girls," she said. "We found girls who had regular family meals had half the odds of initiating cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana use in the five-year time period."

Eisenberg's team followed 806 Minnesota teens, about 55 percent of them girls and 45 percent of them boys. They first surveyed the children in school in 1998 to 1999 when they were about age 13, asking how often their family ate meals together and the kids' use of substances.

The researchers followed up with a second survey five years later.

At age 18, the girls who had regular meals with their family -- defined for the study as five or more a week -- had a much lower risk of substance abuse. And the meal didn't have to be dinner, Eisenberg said.

A previous analysis of the same study participants found a stronger association for girls than boys between family meals and a lower risk of eating disorders. Yet to come is an analysis of the effect family meals have on a teen's mental health.

The findings are published in the August issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Other research by some of the same University of Minnesota researchers has revealed a link between regular family meals and a lower risk of high-risk behaviors, including violence, school problems and substance abuse in both boys and girls.

While Eisenberg can't explain why regular family meals don't seem to keep boys away from alcohol and drugs, she said parents of boys can focus on other strategies, such as having brief, ongoing conversations about the dangers of substance abuse.

More information

To learn more, visit the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

Keeping Kids Clean

Family meals aren't the only way to up the odds that your teen won't turn to drugs or alcohol, said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Here is his advice:

  • Start the anti-drug conversations early. "The average age of first drug use is 14," he said. For help in how to do that, visit or
  • Don't think "one big talk" is all that's needed to steer kids away from substance abuse. "You need to be having a series of frequent, brief conversations," he said. "Your kids are faced with the drug issue on a day-in, day-out basis."
  • Know who your kids hang with. And know their parents, Pasierb added, to the degree possible. Know where you child goes from after school until dinner if there isn't a parent at home.
  • Take advantage of "teachable moments." Suppose you're riding in the car with the radio on, with your teen, and news about the latest Hollywood star or pro athlete to enter rehab comes on. Don't lecture. Instead, Pasierb suggests, ask: "What do you think about that?" If you listen to the answer, you will begin to understand your child's views and challenges.

SOURCES: Marla Eisenberg, Sc.D., M.P.H., assistant professor, pediatrics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Steve Pasierb, president, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, New York City; August 2008 Journal of Adolescent Health

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