How to calm your child when the eating disorder heightens anxiety and panic

How parents can get skilled at calming their child

Before the eating disorder, I bet you could soothe your child with a hug and a few comforting words. It worked,whether or not your child was born with an anxious temperament. But now with an eating disorder, you're seeing panic, meltdowns, or shut-down. Their body is stressed by malnourishment and by hunger. Their mind is tortured by self-loathing and by the challenges of treatment: eat, stop the compulsive exercise, stop purging…

It takes super-skills to help our child cope.

I've been gathering calming tips from experts, and I'm proposing how to apply them when there's anorexia or another eating disorder. Here on this page I'm aiming to get you started with the most important soothing principles.

I've put all the calming strategies in my Bitesize audio collection, so you can listen on the go, rather than have to read long explanations, when perhaps you are yourself in overwhelm.

Why you should become an expert at calming when your child has an eating disorder

Anxiety is so horrible, it's understandable that your child should do anything to avoid it. If your child knows you can help them cope when they get anxious, and before they get panicky, they're more likely to stay through a challenge. And the same for you. Having calming skills can make you braver, knowing it's safe to drive progress forward.

Get to know the nervous system and the state of fight, flight and freeze

You may have noticed how saying, "CALM DOWN, there's NOTHING to WORRY about!!!" doesn't work. And how your child at first rejects the explanations which you think ought to be reassuring.

That's because the brain is prioritising rapid protection, putting your loved one in a state of fight, flight or freeze.

While the nervous system is detecting threats, the limbic region of the brain (the home of the amygdalae) is in charge. Your child gets locked in a stressed state, further exacerbated by fearful, defensive, catastrophic thoughts — the internal critic gets LOUD!

The prefrontal cortex, which is what YOU are trying to address with your sensible explanations, is pretty much offline.

The brain in fight, flight, freeze
Get your child out of fight, flight, freeze through messages of safety and connection

Once you think in terms of fight, flight or freeze, you may better cope with your child's far-out behaviours, knowing that's how humans are built. Your child needs your help to get out of their locked-in state. They need your compassion because in their anxious state, any sense of criticism or rejection will amplify their stressful self-talk (the little green monster in my image).

While you may state your limits regarding unacceptable behaviour (I say more on that in Chapter 14 of my book, and in my Bitesize audios), you can position yourself as your child's coach to help them get back to themselves.

Most tools to help calm your child are about giving the nervous system the message that the threat is over. Kindness, body language, distraction, words that 'speak' to the unconscious, are all in your toolkit.

What triggers fight, flight or freeze, and what makes it pass?

Here's a short audio from my Bitesize collection, on what puts the nervous system in a state of threat, and what gets it back out:

Calming tools based on the body

The body is where stress and calm live. More powerful than your words, is how you bring changes to your child's body.

Breathing is a major tool to 'trick' the body into feeling calm and safe. But if your child is hyperventilating they might not want to even think about their breath.

Movement is useful — and I don't mean allowing your child to do a hundred crunches,…. Here's a 2-minute clip from my Bitesize audio collection:

Check if your child would welcome a hug. If it's a 'Yes', that gives the nervous system a direct message of love, connection and safety. You may feel you're not doing much, but your kind touch is probably halting the exhausting production of adrenaline and cortisol, while triggering a rise in oxytocin, putting your child in a state of love and connection.

When your child is having a panic attack, a meltdown, think of them as lost in an unreal, nightmarish world. To bring them back to the safety of the real world, engage their physical senses. As one example among many, some parents run an ice cube gently around their child's face.

What you say and how you listen

Though I'm emphasizing the role of the body, what you say is also important. Probably not so much the actual words, as the unconscious messages of safety you are giving. While in fight, flight or freeze, your child's internal critic is likely to be telling them that everyone hates them, that they have no right to live on this planet, and that they should not trust anybody.

So your listening and talking needs to be ultra-compassionate. My book and my Bitesize audios are all about those skills. For a quick overview, you may enjoy this YouTube I created for you: "Connect before you Direct".

And for a change from my voice, and some great tips on things to say, watch Pooky Knightsmith:

If your child is suicidal, this is another helpful video from Pooky: Suicide: How to support during crisis moments

Your child rejects you… or they're 'clingy'

Some children push their parents away ("I hate you!!!") and some can't leave your side ("Don't leave me!") In the following clip I validate your presence and interconnection.

I bring up the 'clingy' child, because I'm appalled when a parent is told they are 'reinforcing' their child's anxiety by being there for their child.

What else?

There is so much more to help soothe your child. In my Bitesize audio collection I take you through loads of calming things to do and things to say. My book, likewise, guides you in very practical ways to be both loving and persistent, to be firm and kind.

For other people's descriptions of these calming tools, here are some great sites:

Parents with a child who is struggling with self-harm tell me that the CalmHarm app is helping.

If your child's anxiety is through the roof and making it impossible to proceed with meals and weight recovery, call upon your treatment team's psychiatrist: in addition to all your calming skills, there is medication that can help.

More help for parents

For an autistic person, an eating disorder may bring about an extra high level of anxiety. I have collated tips from parents of autistic youngsters here and I believe those tips usefully expand the toolbox of any parents of any child.

I run brief online workshops to help you with practical skills: with mealtimes (phase 1) and with the work after refeeding (phase 2), with communication, and with your own wellbeing.

Online workshops eating disorders

Regarding the futility of logical explanations at mealtimes, I have a short, popular video: Help your child eat with trust, not logic – the bungee jump 

I do hope this page can get you started so you chalk up some successes right away. Do use the comments below to contribute calming tips that help your child.

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Build your skills and confidence with my 'Communication' workshop on 6 December

Workshop communicate Eating disorder