Ken was a single dad with a 6 -year-old daughter named Claire and an 8-year-old son named Patrick. Ken dreaded mealtime with his kids. It seemed that every time they sat down to eat, the kids would refuse to eat what he had made, have a tantrum, get up from the table before the meal was finished, shove too much food in their mouths or start arguing. This really frustrated Ken because he worked in sales and was frequently on his mobile phone speaking with clients when then kids started acting up. The noise from the Claire and Patrick along with the distraction they created made conducting business very hard. Ken wondered how he could make mealtimes more peaceful and less stressful.
Ken was experiencing what many families face daily – a complete unraveling at the dinner table. Family meals are wonderful to help family members reconnect after a busy day at school and work. Sitting together and sharing a meal creates space to check in with each family member, provide support, discuss important topics, and design a space where everyone feels that they belong.
However, there can be barriers that keep this connection from occurring. It can be especially frustrating for parents who are trying to create a daily tradition with family dinners. One of the well-known barriers to having harmonious family dinners is excessive parental phone use. Research has shown that parents who are heavy phone users often have mealtime problems with their children.
Children and teens, but especially school-age kiddos, need to connect with their parents every day to discuss their successes, difficulties, and get support. Without this daily connection, children feel less equipped to manage stressful situations, try new challenges, acknowledge their success, and share their feelings. Therefore, having parents who are available and create space for these deeply personal exchanges is vital for healthy child and teen development.
When parents are always on their phone, for either work or personal matters, it can interfere with creating time and space to connect with children. In response, many children will learn to create ways of being “seen,” or catching their parent’s attention. Some of these behaviors may include being naughty because, for children, getting negative attention (being yelled at or corrected) is better than being ignored. Creating a fuss or drama at the dinner table, when everyone is together, is a very common way for children who do not feel they are getting enough positive parental attention to capture the spotlight.
By creating a reliable time in each day that kids know they have their parent’s attention, without the distraction of mobile phones, can be a wonderful way help kids relax and know that their needs will be met. Limiting phone use during mealtimes, both for parents and kids, is a great way to show that family is more important than work or others. Creating a tradition of asking everyone to share one good thing that happened each day can help start a conversation and open up kids to share more personal issues that may have happened. With time, children and teens will learn to see the family dinner table as a safe space where they can ask tough questions, go to get support when the world feels mean, and celebrate both big and small success.
The research is clear, mobile phones are a huge barrier between parents and children when used excessively. Parents who are constantly connected to their phones may be missing cues from their children and teens. And, in response, their children may be acting out in order to capture their parent’s attention. By making mealtimes a mobile-phone free zone, parents will be creating a safe space where kids know they can go to get the support and connection they need each day.
About the instructor
Dr. Deanna Marie Mason PhD
More than 20 years of clinical experience helping families:
Bachelor's Degree in Registered Nursing, Master’s Degree in Pediatric Nurse Practitioner and PhD in Nursing. University professor, patient education specialist, pediatric researcher, published author and reviewer to first-line international scientific journals, continuous philanthropic activity related to health promotion and education, wife and mother of two children.