Lately, I have heard a few stories of teenagers in America being depressed, abusing drugs and/or even attempting suicide. Stories like this are so heart breaking and make you wonder what’s happening to these kids. Many of them come from good families, attend good schools and live in wealthy communities. On surface, the environment around them seems ideal for having a healthy and happy upbringing. Then what could possibly be behind this?
I was recently talking about this issue with a friend who is also a proud mother of two responsible and loving children in their late twenties. I asked her what her secret to raising her children so well was and her answer really surprised me. She said, “I always had dinner with my kids”. I couldn’t understand how she could attribute something so simple to be the single most important factor in successfully raising her kids. But as I started to think more about her response, it actually made a lot of sense.
First, there is something to be said about the structure and ritual of getting together around a dinner table at the same time every night. The structure is important because everyone is so busy. Parents can easily get carried away with working another late night at the office and kids wouldn’t mind spending more time on their own. The ritual is important because it brings the family together to share a common experience. I remember growing up in my own family; we would always have dinner followed by my father watching the news at 9pm every night. No matter how much I hated watching news at that age; this ritual was just part of our life and something we did together as a family.
Second, when people get together around a dinner table, they often talk. It is an opportunity for everyone to share what’s on their mind casually without feeling stressed. Parents can learn about what’s happening in their kid’s life, pick up clues if something is wrong and offer support and advice. While the act of getting your teenager to talk you about his/her day is an accomplishment in itself, this alone is not the only benefit. The content of those conversations is what’s really important in my opinion.
I have noticed that some families have unsaid rules about not discussing topics that are uncomfortable and may point to problems in the kids’ lives or how the family is operating. Their dinner table conversations revolve around trivial things that happened in the day and avoid talking about anything negative. It may just be a cultural thing or because the parents want to keep up with the Joneses and appear to be a perfect family. They start believing in their own illusion and anything that might contradict that illusion does not get discussed. The kids are already under immense pressure to do so many things; get good grades, play sports, excel in extracurricular activities on top of just being a teenager. It’s not hard to imagine why some of them end up feeling depressed and suicidal if the family support structure is not there for them to express how they are feeling.
I have presented a rather harsh view of what’s happening in these households and granted there are many other factors that could be influencing the kid’s behaviors. My point though is that there is no such thing as a perfect family and important issues should be brought up and discussed constructively. The dinner table offers a perfect opportunity for doing this.