What to do about your child's anxiety about food and eating

What to do about your child’s anxiety about food and eating

Having anxiety about food and eating shows up in many eating disorders, especially anorexia and orthorexia. If your child has an eating disorder, it’s very likely they are struggling with a lot of anxiety around food and eating. It’s really frustrating to watch a child refuse to eat and have complete meltdowns over meals.

This is advanced parenting, but you can learn skills to help your child learn to soothe their food and eating anxiety. This is a great way to support your child at home while they undergo therapy for their eating disorder. If you learn how to manage your child’s food and eating anxiety, you can help them recover from their eating disorder.

Disclaimer: the following is not medical advice, nor should it override anything that your child’s treatment team instructs you to do at home. Ask your child’s treatment team for their advice if you have questions about this article!

1. Check your own anxiety about food and eating

It’s important to start with yourself. This is because while we live in a highly individualistic society that emphasizes individual agency, humans are designed to attune with each other. Parents are our first attunement partners, and how they feel deeply impacts how we feel.

It’s completely normal if you feel anxious when your child gets anxious. In fact, it would be a little strange if you didn’t! But this is where we have to build new emotional regulation skills and learn to stay calm inside of ourselves even as our child escalates into anxiety.

This is not easy. You understandably want to get your child to eat. But the fact is that you will be unable to meaningfully help them without first soothing your own anxiety.

Two types of adult anxiety

There are two primary forms of adult anxiety. One is obvious, and it involves runaway thoughts about worst-case scenarios, excessive and irrational worrying, wringing your hands, and having symptoms like sweaty hands and an upset stomach.

There is a second form of anxiety that can be a little harder to recognize. Some of us have a detached anxiety response, which means that we shut down rather than ratchet up. We are just as anxious as the other type, but our response doesn’t sound or look like what we think of as anxiety. It is sometimes called “stonewalling” and is an emotional shut-down.

Whichever place you go in anxiety, your child knows it when you’re there. They feel it on a subconscious level, and they have felt it since your first held them and every day since. Your emotional security is crucial to their survival. Any unresolved anxiety can make them feel insecure and anxious.

Please know that this is not coming from a blaming standpoint. It is actually empowering to realize that we can influence our child’s health and happiness just by learning to regulate our own emotions.

It takes effort to learn to regulate your anxiety, but rest assured that it is one of the most treatable forms of mental distress. Please seek information and support so that you can start to recognize your anxiety and regulate your emotions when your child becomes distressed.

It really helps to work with a therapist if at all possible. Treating a parent’s anxiety can make a huge impact on a child’s anxiety. Remember, we’re not individuals, but a highly-attuned system. When one person in a family changes, the others often do as well.

2. Food and eating anxiety is not breaking news

One of the most important concepts to internalize about your child’s anxiety about food and eating is that it’s not breaking news. You have probably noticed that it pops up repeatedly. Whether it’s every meal or just certain meals, the fact is that your child feels anxious about eating.

Most of us naturally jump in to try and soothe the anxiety with words and questions. This makes a lot of sense, and perhaps it worked when your child was younger. But if your child is feeling consistently anxious about food and refusing to eat, then you are in a new stage of anxiety management, and your old methods don’t work anymore.

Parents must stop responding to anxiety as if it is breaking news that must be interviewed, reported on, and discussed at length as front page headlines. Instead, it’s more like the weather in Los Angeles. It may vary a little bit, and sometimes we have significant weather events, but it’s rare. Most of the time, native Los Angeleans don’t check the weather because we pretty much know what’s coming tomorrow, next week, and even next month. It’s almost never breaking news.

Here’s a scenario:

Amy is very anxious about mealtimes. Every time I put a plate down, she starts to shake and cry. She physically shrinks away from the food. I ask her what’s wrong, and she cries more. I reassure her that the food is healthy, safe, and tasty, and that she has liked it before, and she screams at me. Her palms are sweaty and she’s shaking. I keep asking her questions and trying to convince her that it’s safe, but it’s not working, and she’s pretty much not eating at this point.

Here’s another way it could go:

Amy is very anxious about mealtimes. We know this. So before we’re going to eat, we talk a little bit about the fact that we’re going to eat and acknowledge that anxiety often shows up for meals. Then we’ll take a walk together or do some yoga poses, or I’ll just sit quietly with her. I work to connect with her and let her know that I know anxiety is coming and that it’s OK. We don’t make a big deal out of the reasons for her anxiety, we just assume it’s going to show up. After doing this for a while, we’re noticing that she’s coming to the table less stressed. I’m definitely less stressed, too!

Parents who anticipate anxiety feel less stressed about it when it shows up. Since we live in highly attuned systems, this reduces the stress that our child feels about their anxiety. Remember that they don’t want to be anxious, and they can sense that it’s upsetting for you, which is scary for them. So when you respond like it’s breaking news, they panic even more. When you normalize it and expect the anxiety, it’s not quite so scary.

3. Right channel, volume too high

The problem is not that your child is afraid. The problem is that their brain is over-reacting to fear.

One way to think of anxiety is that our child is on the right channel, but the volume is too high. What they are thinking about makes sense. It’s true that the food might taste bad. It’s true that they might feel worried about eating too much. They are very likely worried about getting fat or eating something unhealthy.

Whatever fears they have make sense to them right now. The problem is that the volume is up way too high. Instead of having a thought and moving on like a healthy brain would, their anxious amygdala blows up and overreacts.

This video provides a great overview of how this works:

Sounds familiar …

You might recognize this response in yourself. As soon as you sit down and you can tell that your child doesn’t want to eat, your amygdala immediately jumps to the fear that they are going to die if they don’t eat. Of course you are worried, and you have every reason to be.

At the same time, missing a single meal is not the end of the world. Both things are true: you are afraid, and this single meal your child is refusing right now is not a life-or-death situation. (If a single meal is life-threatening, then stop reading and take your child to the Emergency Room!)

What I am saying is that the channel is right – the fear makes sense, but the volume is way too loud.

Calm the amygdala

High-volume anxiety means our amygdala is freaking out. Once our amygdala freaks out, it’s impossible to be rational and effective. Until we calm our amygdala down, we’re not going to believe that our child is safe, and we’re not going to be able to help our child eat.

Likewise, until our child’s amygdala calms down and stops shouting, they’re not going to be able to eat.

Don’t try to talk your child out of their anxiety and into eating until you sense that the volume is lower and their amygdala is calmer. When you try to reason at high volume, it’s like screaming into a speaker blasting Iron Maiden. Nobody can hear you. No matter how perfect your words are, you won’t accomplish anything. You will, however, get exhausted and hoarse.

Your job is not to convince your child that they’re on the wrong channel. Your job is to help them lower the volume of their amygdala so they can figure that out for themselves.

4. Say less, be more

Most of us respond to anxiety by using language and words. We desperately want to help our child feel better and eat a healthy meal. So we try to use our words to convince them to eat. We think that if we say just the right thing, it will fix the problem. But remember that until their amygdala lowers its volume, we will not succeed. The amygdala does not respond to language. It responds to feelings.

We are hard-wired from birth to respond to our parents’ internal state of mind. We are highly attuned to our parents’ feelings. That means that what’s going on emotionally for you matters to your child more than anything you say.

Don’t get into debates about the value of the meal, the number of calories, and whether it is healthy or not. Don’t get sucked into discussions of how much is enough, how their stomach feels right now, or anything else. You don’t want to get into an argument about what’s on the plate or the fact that there is a plate. You will never win a debate with an amygdala.

So what do you do instead?

You need to find a calm place inside of yourself to accept the anxiety your child is in. If you can find a way to believe that their anxiety will not kill them (or you!) and that it will pass like clouds in the sky, they will pick up on your emotional state and their amygdala will calm down.

Think of yourself as a solid boulder in the ocean of your child’s emotions. No matter how hard it storms, you stay steady. Trust that your child will get through their anxiety and that they will be OK.

Sit with them while they rage and storm. Be a calm and loving presence in the face of their anxiety. Let them know that you care, but that you will not get into arguments about the value of food and eating. You know they are anxious right now, and you are going to sit with them through the anxiety.

What to say

Here are some things you can say when they start to try and engage you in a debate:

  • That may be true, but right now we’re just going to sit here so that your amygdala can settle down.
  • I hear what you’re saying, and I know you’re feeling very anxious. For now, we’re just going to sit here together and wait for our amygdalae to chill out.
  • I understand that you’re afraid, so let’s just accept that right now. I’m all right with all your feelings.
  • I know that when you yell at me, it means you’re feeling anxious. It’s OK – I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere.

Your calm, loving presence will help calm their amygdala. Your refusal to engage in debate and steady belief that food is good and healthy will help them know that you expect them to eat. You don’t have to tell them that you want them to eat – they know what you want. Don’t engage with the anxiety, and instead let them feel it like a passing storm.

This takes practice and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself!

5. Celebrate successful anxiety resolution

Remember that anxiety is not breaking news. That means that getting through one meal does not mean the next one will be easy. It just means that the next meal is very likely to have anxiety as well. Try to never be surprised by anxiety.

It takes patience, time, and compassion to resolve anxiety, but it helps to have hope. This is why celebrating successful anxiety resolution can help. It reminds everyone that this is a process that you are all learning.

The goal is not to never experience anxiety, but rather to endure anxiety without actually dying (which is what anxiety feels like). Anxiety always resolves.

Journal ideas

Get a journal or a calendar, and take a few minutes together to write a quick recap of anxiety events. For example:

  • I sat down at the table, and I thought I was going to die. Seriously, my anxiety was HUGE. Mom and Dad sat with me. I started to feel a little better.
  • Dad called me to dinner and I fell down on the floor and refused to get up. I was so MAD. Mom sat with me on the floor. It took a while, but it passed. And it really wasn’t comfortable on the floor 😉
  • Mom served mac and cheese and I felt so ANGRY. I cried and yelled and told her that she was so mean. Mom put the plate down in the kitchen and sat with me while I calmed down. Then we tried again and the mac and cheese was actually pretty good.

Notice that we’re allowing the child to talk about the anxiety and how it felt. Anxiety is big and scary. It’s terrifying and enormous. People go to the emergency room for anxiety symptoms because it is so hard to endure.

But like a huge thunderstorm, anxiety never lasts forever. So let your child acknowledge the pain of having anxiety as well as recognize that as big as it gets, it always passes. If it’s possible to add some humor in the retelling, that may help lighten the mood and laugh a little together.

Remember to check with your child’s treatment team to make sure they agree with this approach for your unique child and situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: But isn’t this catering to the anxiety?

A: This is catering to your child’s biological need to be in a state of homeostasis in order to eat. I know that most of us were raised in environments when feeling feelings wasn’t allowed, but when you have a child who has an eating disorder you simply must recognize that emotional literacy is your number one goal to support their recovery. Trying to shut down anxiety, ignore it, or treat it as if it’s bad is only going to hurt recovery.

Q: This is so much work! Will I have to do this every single time we eat?

A: I know it’s so much work, and I’m so sorry that you have to experience food and eating anxiety. It’s very stressful. Luckily, you can learn to regulate your own emotions, which will reduce stress for everyone. And your child is in therapy, so they’re learning emotional regulation skills, too. Over time and with proper treatment, you will be better-regulated, your child’s anxiety will reduce, the eating disorder will recede, and you will not have to put so much effort into every meal. But for now, yeah. It’s a lot of work.

Q: That’s all fine, but what if they still don’t eat?

A: This is a question that you have to work on with your child’s treatment team. The point of this article is to help parents who have kids who are eating sometimes, but feel tremendous anxiety around food and eating. If your child is truly not eating and is deep in their anorexia behaviors and medically unstable, then they need a higher level of care. This article is not intended to replace any professional care – it’s only intended to help make mealtimes less stressful, which is good for everyone’s appetite.

A final note

Having a child with anxiety is scary and frustrating. A child who is anxious about food is at high risk of having their anxiety create a major health problem. You are right to be scared.

But please know that anxiety is the most treatable mental disorder. There is tremendous hope for your child. While the eating disorder is multi-layered, food and eating anxiety often lie at the heart of it. Helping your child navigate anxiety is possibly the single most important skill you can learn right now.


Ginny Jones is the editor of More-Love.org. She writes about parenting, body image, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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