Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioural Outcomes

Further to this post about emerging evidence that family meals may not be the protective factor we had thought it was when it comes to drug and alcohol use.

Another research paper suggests we may need to be cautious in our assessment of eating together as a crucial element in protecting our children.

The researchers have looked at data provided by 21,400 children aged 5–15 and has controlled for a range of other factors to be able to judge whether frequently eating together as a family has a positive effect on academic and behavioural outcomes (including substance misuse).

They put a number of important caveats around what they find, they point out previous research has found a link, but come to the conclusion.

In sum, despite differences between our study and previous analyses, our results suggest that the findings of previous work regarding FMF [family meal frequency] and adolescent outcomes should be viewed with some caution.

via Family Meals and Child Academic and Behavioral Outcomes – Miller – 2012 – Child Development – Wiley Online Library.

Settling Disputes In Research

One of the key influences on young people’s behaviour is the boundaries and values that parents express.

Parenting that is too laissez-faire (“I can’t tell you how to live your life, do what you think is best”), or too authoritarian (“Do as I say or else!”), tends not to be as effective as authoritative parenting (“I want to know where you are and who you are with”, “I don’t want you to drink at the party”).

We also know that the attitudes and behaviours of the parents of young people’s friends also plays a part in protecting or raising the risks around substance misuse.

The Orebro programme (see here for the CAYT analysis of the programme) was developed in Sweden as a way of trying to help parents to set collective boundaries to reduce alcohol use. It brings together parents of young people who go to the same school and it; raises their awareness of the harms that alcohol can do to young people; why not engaging in early use of alcohol is beneficial to young people; and perhaps most importantly it asks the parents to collectively set boundaries and expectations for their children.

The journal Addiction has been running an interesting debate about the effectiveness of the programme, where a trial of the programme carried out by people independent to the developers found that it does not appear to reduce or delay youth drunkenness.

The authors of the original research wrote back to suggest:

Overall, our conclusions suggest the opposite of what Bodin & Strandberg concluded. The ÖPP programme appears to influence changes in youth drunkenness, which is the aim of the programme. In addition, the effect of the programme is seemingly explained by changes in parental attitudes to youth drinking, providing strong support for the validity of the programme theory.

Which led to a further letter in the journal from Bodin and Strandberg arguing that what they were trying to explore was not whether the programme worked in ‘laboratory’ conditions, but if it could work in the ‘real world’. They rightly point out this is one of the major challenges of current prevention research.

To me this sets out a critical issue for organisations like ours to think about; how do we not only pick the right interventions, but how can we make sure that the implementation of them has the best chance of replicating positive results?

The dangers are clear: delivering a good programme badly damages not only the reputation of the programme, but also the still fragile reputation of the evidence based prevention movement. However, programmes that only work when delivered by the programme developers aren’t of much use to the wider world and have little chance of achieving scale or sustainability.

The Society for Prevention Research – the US big sister organisation to the European Society for Prevention Research that I’m involved with – has set out standards for judging the very best programmes and interventions that include: having been tested at least twice, evaluated in real world conditions, and having clear cost information and monitoring tools.

The importance of family dinners

We know that one of the most important influences on young people’s substance use and misuse are their parents. And one of the messages we have for parents is that frequent family dinners could be an important protective factor when it comes to substance misuse.

As we know its not the food that is the active ingredient in preventing substance misuse, its the opportunity to talk and engage with family members, to be interested in, and engaged with, the lives of our sons and daughters.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University have an annual survey which provides some American data on this. They report that teenagers who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are:

  • Almost four times likelier to use tobacco;
  • More than twice as likely to use alcohol;
  • Two-and-a-half times likelier to use marijuana; and
  • Almost four times likelier to say they expect to try drugs in the future.

What we can’t tell is whether the same would be true in the UK, but it would be good to find out wouldn’t it?

5 a day for parenting

Aside

Dr Liz Sidwell is reported in the Telegraph to believe that there should be a 5 a day plan for making sure that children are ready for school.

  1. Families should be told to get their children up in the morning
  2. Give them breakfast
  3. Get them to school
  4. Engage in proper conversation and
  5. Read together on a daily basis

Given that at least 3 of these things are also protective factors for substance use what do we think?