U. ILLINOIS (US)—Children who have asthma are at high risk for separation anxiety, but a new study finds that regular family mealtimes help kids stay calm—in turn, easing asthma symptoms.
“It makes sense that children who have difficulty breathing might be anxious and prefer to keep their parents, who can help them in an emergency, close by,” says Barbara Fiese, professor of human and community development at the University of Illinois.
Fiese had two guiding questions: First, is asthma severity, as measured by pulmonary testing and by reported asthma symptoms, related to the development of separation anxiety symptoms in children? Second, can family interaction patterns mediate this relationship? This study reports that the answer to both questions is yes.
“In this study, we identified one important practice that makes a difference. Supportive interaction during family mealtimes helps increase a child’s sense of security and eases separation anxiety symptoms. And, when children are less anxious, their lung function improves,” she says.
The study is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
“Children need regularity and predictability,” says Fiese. “When families are overwhelmed or lack the skills to keep routines in place, there are often physical and psychological costs to their children. Left untreated, separation anxiety can lead to adult panic disorder.”
In the six-week study, 63 children between the ages of 9 to 12 years with persistent asthma completed questionnaires and were interviewed about their physical and mental health, including an assessment for separation anxiety.
Within one week of the lab visit, a family meal was recorded on video camera. The children’s medication use was monitored electronically throughout the study.
The researchers found a relatively strong relationship between compromised lung function and separation anxiety symptoms.
“But, interestingly, we could also see that these intense feelings of concern were related to how the family interacted at mealtime. When children had separation anxiety, their mealtimes were characterized by withdrawal, a lack of engagement, and low levels of communication,” she explains.
Conversely, family mealtimes that were organized, featured assigned roles, and generated involvement among participants were a protective factor for children.
Shared family mealtimes are important because “few other family activities are repeated with such regularity, allowing children to build up expectations about how their parents and siblings will react from day to day, Fiese says.
“As a result, kids develop a sense of security. They know someone’s there for them. That’s important for a child who feels vulnerable.”
Fiese recommends that health care providers “prescribe” family mealtimes as a tool for building trust and an opportunity for parents to check in and find out how their children are doing.
The repetitive nature of mealtimes allows parents of children with a chronic health condition to regularly check on their symptoms, quickly remind them to take medications, and plan ahead for the next day’s events, she says.
“In this way, family management becomes part of the child’s expected environment and reduces the anxious feelings associated with unpredictability and the feeling that things are not in control,” she explains.
Researchers from Syracuse University, National Jewish Health, and the University of Colorado contributed to the study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.
University of Illinois news: www.aces.uiuc.edu/news