Jamie feels helpless and frustrated. Her son Michael has an eating disorder and severe anxiety, and the combination is making life very hard for them. “I just want to be able to do things that other families do without thinking about it,” she says. “Like go to a restaurant or the movies without all the drama of the anxiety.”
I get it. Anxiety is stressful for everyone, and many parents feel helpless when anxiety shows up and takes over. This article will help you cope with anxiety when it shows up alongside an eating disorder.
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. A more recent study conducted by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) found that between 2016 and 2020, the number of children ages 3-17 years diagnosed with anxiety grew by 29%.
Anxiety impacts almost every aspect of life. But anxiety is also a very treatable disorder. Things can get better! You can help by teaching your child to cope with anxiety when they have an eating disorder.
Coping tools for kids who have anxiety and an eating disorder
Anxiety disorders are hard to cope with, 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 to get through anxiety.
If your child has an eating disorder, they should be receiving therapy to help them manage their anxiety. But some tools can help with short-term coping. While these tools don’t replace therapy, they can be very helpful for parents trying to cope with the stress of everyday living with anxiety and an eating disorder.
The tyranny of surprise
One of the hard things about having anxiety is that it can feel so surprising. Few people think of themselves or their kids as fragile. So we walk around expecting things to be fine. But then anxiety shows up apparently out of nowhere and surprises us. But the thing about anxiety is that it shows up reliably, usually every day. And often there are common threads before the anxiety shows up. We shouldn’t be surprised, and yet most of us are.
One idea is to start expecting anxiety to show up. This reduces the stress and anxiety about having anxiety.
Parents can say things like “oh, here’s anxiety, I expected it, welcome anxiety!” Doing this takes some of the power away from anxiety. And it helps your child feel less vulnerable to its impact. When parents normalize and accept anxiety, it often feels less intense for everyone.
That’s why I love using anxiety props and tools. They’re a great way to show that not only do you expect anxiety to show up, but you are also prepared for it and have your response ready to go.
Build an anxiety toolkit
I think it’s helpful to have some props or tools to cope with anxiety because it gives a visual and action-oriented response that shows you are not surprised or upset when anxiety appears. You can have one or two of these items available or even develop an “Emergency Anxiety Kit” with a few different options when you’re on the go.
Talking with our kids about anxiety and discussing soothing tools that may help is important. Not every child responds similarly, so I have provided several options and ideas. Generally, we’re looking for tools that engage the senses. This helps ground the anxiety by responding neutrally when it shows up and stimulating the body’s five senses.
Help your child find the tool or tools that help them get grounded during an anxiety episode. Here are some ideas:
1. Counting beads (touch)
Counting is 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 form 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 count silently.
The combination of touching the beads and counting 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.
2. Stress slime (touch)
Touching something during an anxiety episode can be very therapeutic, since anxiety often becomes trapped energy in our bodies. Slime 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 with styrofoam beads and other items that add to the tactile pleasure that slime provides.
You can also make slime using one of the hundreds of online recipes. Experiment with your child to develop different slimes. You can keep them in sealed containers or zip-top baggies so that they are always available for your child to use.
3. Something soft (touch)
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 their room and stroke during stressful periods. Of course, a pet works well with that, too! 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 just to 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 anxious, it’s easy to lose touch with our sense of place in the world. Even if plenty of people love us, anxiety can make us forget that momentarily. Kids may become flooded with fear that they will never belong and are all alone in the world. This is why photos can be grounding.
If your child has a smartphone, you can add some photos designed to remind them of the people and animals they love. Or you can print out photos to be kept in pockets or bags.
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 collection.
5. Music (sound)
Listening to music, playing an instrument, or singing can be a great tool for redirecting anxiety. You can create a playlist filled with songs to soothe anxiety so they can access music anytime anxiety strikes. Classical music is reliable in this way. Some great soothing classical music can be found on Baby Mozart-type albums.
If your child plays an instrument, you may suggest that they learn a piece by heart that they can play in times of stress. 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 feel 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 cope with anxiety and an eating disorder will help a lot with your child’s emotional regulation. And the good thing is that once you’ve learned it, it gets easier each time. Anxiety is normal – everyone has it. But we want to help our kids who have eating disorders cope with anxiety as best they can.
Jamie saw a difference as soon as she put together her anxiety toolkit for Michael. “The biggest thing is that I felt like I knew what I was doing and was supposed to do when his anxiety showed up,” she said. “I never realized how stressed I was every time I detected anxiety. Now I feel like I know what to do. And it doesn’t work perfectly, of course, but it has helped us many times when he started to spiral and needed a little help grounding himself.”
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating disorders. She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate eating disorder recovery.
For privacy, names and identifying details have been changed in this article.