If you have a child with an eating disorder, then it’s important to learn how to help kids get through anxiety. Whether they have full-blown anxiety attacks, display anxiety around mealtimes, or just generally seem pretty anxious, learning how to help them get through it is important.
Anxiety is a major underlying and co-occuring factor with eating disorders. And anxiety is on the rise for our tweens and teens. A study by the American College Health Association found a significant increase. Up to 62% of undergraduates reported anxiety in 2016, up from 50% in 2011. (New York Times). And of course, the pandemic has increased rates of anxiety in kids. The impact of anxiety is felt in almost every aspect of life. So addressing it now can literally change your child’s future.
Coping with anxiety
Anxiety disorders are serious, especially if they occur in conjunction with an eating disorder. Therapy for anxiety typically includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). These treatments are designed to teach kids coping mechanisms and new thought patterns around anxiety.
But there are things that parents can do to support adaptive anxiety coping skills as well. For example, I recommend working with kids to develop an “Emergency Anxiety Kit.” Kids can use these items to help ground themselves when anxiety strikes. Below are a few items to consider for your kit.
It’s important to talk with our kids about anxiety and discuss soothing tools that may help. Not every child responds in the same way, which is why we have provided several options and ideas. Generally, we’re looking for tools that engage the senses. This helps ground the anxiety, which begins in the mind, by stimulating the body’s five senses. Help your child find the tool or tools that help them get grounded during an anxiety episode.
1. Counting beads (touch)
Counting has been shown to be very effective in soothing the mind during an anxiety episode. Many people who struggle with anxiety learn to look around and start counting items to help their brains regroup. This is a more advanced level of mindfulness. A good place to begin is with counting beads. You can get small beaded bracelets, (also called a prayer bracelet), which they can use to silently count.
The combination of touching the beads can be very soothing. Your child may prefer one type of bead over another. Thus, it can help to test a few out if possible. The best part about beads is that they can be kept on the wrist or in a pocket. And it helps that they can be touched or counted without anyone knowing. Many of us who have anxiety attacks become even more anxious about the thought of other people knowing. So this ability to soothe ourselves without a visible tool can be very helpful.
2. Stress slime (touch)
Moving our hands and bodies during an anxiety episode can be very therapeutic, since anxiety often becomes trapped energy in our bodies. The slime trend can be a great way to provide our kids with a tactical outlet for their anxious energy. You can buy slime online. There are many types, including slime that has styrofoam beads and other items that add to the tactile pleasure that slime provides.
You can also make slime using one of hundreds of online recipes. Experiment with your child to develop different slimes, and keep them in sealed containers or zip-top baggies so that they are always available for your child to use. Slime kept in a bag can be placed in your child’s pocket during school. This allows them to access it surreptitiously and without detection when needed.
3. Something soft (touch)
The feeling of smooth beads and squishy slime can be very soothing, but sometimes there is nothing better than the feeling of something soft and furry when we’re stressed. This is the appeal of stuffed animals, which your child may keep in his or her room and stroke during stressful periods. Fur keychains are a popular trend right now that can be used as soothing tools without detection.
A very simple pocket-sized option to deliver softness is to go to the fabric store with your child and touch the fur and fleece fabrics. Select a few that feel best to your child, and purchase a quarter-yard of each. Cut the fabric into pocket-sized squares or rectangles, and replace as often as necessary. Some children will find it soothing to just touch the fur with their fingers. Others may find it helpful to rub it on their arms or faces for soothing relief from stress.
4. Photos (sight)
When we have an anxiety episode, we lose touch with our sense of place in the world. Even if we have plenty of people who love us, we forget momentarily. Kids may become flooded with fear that they will never belong and are all alone in the world.
If your child has a smart phone, you can add some photos designed to remind him or her of the people and animals who care. Or you can print out a photo for easy access. For example, a photo of your daughter with her beloved cat can be an excellent reminder of unconditional love and acceptance.
If your child has a deep affection for a cousin or extended family member, take a photo of them enjoying something together and add it to the phone. You may want to avoid photos of nuclear family members and friends, only because sometimes they can be too close for comfort during anxiety. Sometimes it can be more soothing to think of people and animals who are removed from any negative experiences.
5. Music (sound)
Listening to music, playing an instrument or singing can be a great tool for redirecting anxiety. The key is to find a reliable piece of music that engages the mind enough to soothe the anxiety. The easiest thing to do is find a piece of music that you can load on your child’s smart phone to access anytime anxiety strikes. Classical music has been found to be reliable in this way. Some great soothing classical music can be found on podcasts and on Baby Mozart type albums.
If your child plays an instrument, you may suggest that they learn a piece by heart. Choose something simple enough that they aren’t struggling yet challenging so that they engage their mind a little bit with the music. If your child enjoys singing, you may suggest they assign a favorite song to sing during times of anxiety. Ideally, this is a song to which they know all the words and that is inherently soothing. Lullabies and favorite childhood songs are a great choice.
6. Peppermint (taste/smell)
Studies have shown that people exposed to peppermint oil increases a sense of calm and alertness. When studying drivers, studies have shown that peppermint can reduce frustration, anxiety and fatigue. The simplest way to get some peppermint into your child’s system is to provide them with some peppermint candies that contain real peppermint oil. They can keep the candies in their pocket and suck on them to help soothe their anxiety.
Another method is to smell peppermint oil. This can be done by adding a drop of peppermint essential oil to a cotton ball and putting it in a zip-top bag that can be kept in your child’s pocket. You can also add peppermint essential oil to slime, or you can make a small clay diffuser that your child can have available as needed.
Learning to help kids get through anxiety is a really important skill for parents. And the good thing is that once you’ve learned it, it gets easier each time. Anxiety is normal – everyone has it. But not everyone suffers from the effects of anxiety. And parents are often in the best position to help kids unlearn the habit of coping with anxiety in maladaptive ways.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders and body hate.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents handle their kids’ food and body issues.