Psychologist Finds Therapeutic Role for Family Dinners


Anne Fishel

Psychologist Anne Fishel prepares dinner. Credit: Ginger Chappell

It’s Saturday evening and the smell of roast turkey fills Anne Fishel’s kitchen. Her husband Chris removes the turkey from the oven while Fishel prepares the traditional Passover matzoh ball soup. She dips her hand in water and then places it in a bowl with the sticky matzoh dough. She takes a handful of dough, molds it into the shape of ping pong balls, then boils them in chicken broth. Finally, Fishel serves her family, gathered around the dining room table.

Dinners are more than a Saturday family gathering for Fishel, a clinical psychologist, professor and director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). She studies how family dinners contribute to children’s cognitive and personal development, as well as how they strengthen the bond between children and parents. As dinner is typically a daily routine, Fishel can observe a family’s dynamic and propose solutions tailored to their needs. “Dr. Fishel’s work outlines how the family dinner can serve as an invaluable tool in the assessment and treatment of families in any school of family therapy,” says David Rubin, a psychiatrist at Cornell Medical Center in New York.

For the past 25 years, Fishel has been treating couples and families as a clinical psychologist at her office in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts. She recently began taking a close look at dinner rituals, because meals are family routines that help a therapist understand important aspects of families and make interventions easier. “Patients feel more comfortable answering questions about their dinner than about their sex life or the family roles,” she says.

“Food experiences function not only as a means of physically nourishing a child, but also as a form of emotional nourishment,” says Laura Weisberg, a psychologist at Duke Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina and an expert in eating disorders. Family dinners, according to several psychological studies, show fascinating positive behavioral impacts on children of all ages. Lower rates of substance abuse, depression, pregnancy, alcoholism and eating disorders are just some examples of the long list of positive effects of family dinners. For vulnerable children, not having family meals on a regular basis “makes it easier to begin a pattern of skipping meals, or eating in unhealthy ways, which can then get out of control before the family has an opportunity to recognize it,” says Weisberg. This body of research is so impressive that Fishel almost wants to tell her patients, “Don’t waste your time in therapy-go home right now and cook a meal and eat it together. Here are some recipes, now go!”

Research about the impact of family meals to children’s language and literacy development also caught Fishel’s attention. Although both parents and pediatricians believe that reading is the best way to teach children new vocabulary words, a new study by Catherine Snow of the Harvard Education School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows that the best way to build a child’s vocabulary is through regular family meals. “The use of relatively sophisticated vocabulary at family mealtimes predicted children’s later vocabulary knowledge better than in other settings -book reading, toy play, or story telling,” says Snow, an expert on children’s language and literacy development.

To keep children at the table, Fishel proposes maximizing the pleasure of dinner time. Parents can engage younger kids by playing word games or guessing what ingredients are in a meal. In dealing with teenagers, Fishel suggests avoiding discussions that would bring conflict to dinner. Instead she encourages parents to discuss their daily experiences in an honest and self-disclosing way, inviting children to participate in the conversation. After all, dinners are family rituals, whose purpose is to “create a feeling of warm connection among its members,” Fishel says.

Fishel’s family meals are a synonym of joy and creativity, “something that connects everybody up,” she says. Her two college age sons are very demanding eaters, but “I like the way they push me to be creative and adventurous,” she says. Her favorite meals to prepare are those made with a lot of ingredients cooked together in a pot. She loves making soups, such as squash-apple-onion or swordfish stew with pine nuts, tomatoes and raisins. “These foods are very cozy and connected; the flavors are distinct like the different members of the family.” But, both the ingredients in the soup and the members of the family “are made better by being together,” she adds.

To read the full story by Staff Writer Aspasia Daskalopoulou, visit the Contributions page.

Posted by Joseph, under health (mental), profile  |  Date: July 7, 2008

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