Researchers say, regular family mealtimes can help asthmatic children at high risk for separation anxiety.
"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," said Barbara H. Fiese, a University of Illinois professor of human and community development and director of the university's Family Resiliency Center.
"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 when children are less anxious, their lung function improves," she said.
According to Fiese, family members play an important role in helping children emotionally manage their asthma symptoms, adding that a supportive, organized environment during mealtime puts a child at ease whereas a chaotic, unresponsive atmosphere fosters worry and anxiety.
"Children need regularity and predictability," she said. "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 9- to 12-year-old children 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 said.
Conversely, family mealtimes that were organized, featured assigned roles, and generated involvement among participants were a protective factor for children.