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Family Mess Prevents Mental Mess in Adolescents

Families who eat together keep it together, Spanish researchers find

MONDAY, Jan. 21, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Quality of the cooking aside, family meals could help keep you emotionally hearty.

Adolescents with mental health problems are less likely than their emotionally stable peers to share meals and other important rituals with their families, Spanish researchers say.

Their study, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, doesn't show a cause-effect link. But it does hint at a connection between a close-knit family and mental well being -- and suggests there is at least some credence to the cliché about families that stay together.

"There is a kind of face validity to" the report, says Dr. John Ashton, co-editor of the journal and regional director of health for Northwest England, an area that includes Liverpool and Manchester. "This is something which is obviously of great interest to people concerned that the modern pattern of junk food, fast food and TV viewing has undermined family life."

Ashton says Europeans have prided themselves for centuries on leisurely family meals but are now alarmed at the encroachment on this prandial pastime by American grab-a-bite culture. The result: Parents have less face time with their adolescent children, and are thus less able to offer them support and succor.

"Parents seem to be getting a lot of surprises these days, because they don't know what's going on in their kids' lives," Ashton says.

Led by Elena Compañ Paveda, a researcher in Alicante, the scientists surveyed 282 adolescents and young adults between the ages of 14 and 23 about their family rituals. Eighty-two of those surveyed, all of whom lived at home, were seeking treatment for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems at a local outpatient clinic. The rest were drawn from schools in the city.

When it came to family eating habits, the two groups were sharply different. The emotionally unsteady adolescents reported eating fewer meals each week with their parents and siblings -- 4.5 vs. 6 for the other group. They ate lunch apart almost 14 percent of the time, compared with only 4.5 percent among their peers. And they took about a third of their dinners away from their families, compared with 17.5 percent in the other group. Missed meals on the weekends, and dinner on weekdays, accounted for the bulk of the difference.

Those who visited the clinic also reported having significantly fewer family rituals than their peers. They spent fewer religious and secular holidays together, and recognized fewer special days like anniversaries and goodbye parties. Although they reported watching as much television with their families as the others, they had fewer conversations with parents, less frequent trips, religious activities and other group outings.

In addition, compared to their peers, those seeking mental health care felt a greater sense of family dysfunction. They were about six times as likely to report severe dysfunction, and were much less likely to say that their family life was normal.

The adolescents who sought care were also more likely than those in the others to come from single-parent homes. Their parents were also three times as likely to be retired as were the parents of the other adolescents.

The Spanish team's report "certainly makes sense in terms of what we know about meaningful family rituals and their capacity to inoculate people against mental illness," says Evan Imber-Black, a New York City therapist who has studied the importance of family rituals.

Imber-Black, director of the Center for Families and Health at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, says these activities "provide a sense of cohesion, an anchoring point for kids. They have a point of return to come back to" when trouble enters their lives.

But Imber-Black stresses that being together just to eat doesn't constitute a meaningful ritual.

Meal times must offer children an opportunity to talk with their parents about things that are bothering them, and a chance for parents to learn what's going on with their children, she says. "It's not just sitting in front of the television or just fueling one's engine," she adds.

What To Do

For more on adolescent health, try this site from the National Institute of Mental Health.

The Center for Mental Health Services is another good resource.

SOURCES: Interviews with John Ashton, M.D., professor of public health, University of Liverpool, regional director of health, Northwest England; Evan Imber-Black, Ph.D., director, Center for Families and Health, Ackerman Institute for the Family, New York City; February 2002 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health
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