Is anxiety in charge of your family?

Is anxiety in charge of your family?

Today we’re going to hear from a parent whose child has an eating disorder, but it’s anxiety that is really a problem. We’ll talk through what happens when anxiety and an eating disorder are effectively running the show in a family and what you can do to stop it from happening. 

The letter

Dear Ginny,

My daughter has an eating disorder, but that’s not even our biggest problem. Our biggest problem is her anxiety. Ever since she was little she has made demands that keep us from doing things we want to do and forced us to reassure her constantly throughout the day. It’s exhausting. 

We are at our wits’ end trying to constantly protect and reassure her. The food and body stuff is a big part of it. For example, she constantly asks if she has gained weight and wants us to reassure her she will not gain weight in recovery. Also, she refuses to go to restaurants anymore, so none of us gets to go to restaurants. 

But sometimes it’s got nothing to do with food and body issues. Like if she is worried about a test she rages and cries all night, keeping us all up and trying to calm her down. If we don’t respond perfectly – which we never do – she just gets louder and angrier. If we want to go on vacation, she refuses unless the location meets her exact specifications. And even then, sometimes she will make us miss flights and change our hotel at the last minute.

The list goes on and on, and the worst part is that it’s getting worse, not better. What can we do to stop her anxiety from controlling all of us?

Signed, Kimberly

My response

Hi Kimberly, I’m so glad you reached out. You’re not alone. It’s not uncommon for anxiety and an eating disorder to effectively run the show. When I meet a family dealing with an eating disorder, I’m also looking for anxiety, since it’s usually present and doing exactly what you describe: trying to control, and seeking protection and reassurance. 

I always want to know whether anxiety is running the show. Since you’re telling me that you’re spending a lot of time trying to protect and reassure her, I know that it is running the show in your home.

To run the show means to be in charge, to have control over a situation or a course of action.

When someone has an eating disorder, usually the anxiety runs the show. Even if it looks like you are making your own choices, often we’ll find that what’s behind most of your choices is avoiding the disaster that comes when you don’t accommodate the anxiety. 

How does anxiety take charge of a family?

Here’s what this looks like:

  • Mom likes going to restaurants, but her child refuses to eat in restaurants, so the family orders takeout instead.
  • Dad wants to take his child to therapy, but his child says the therapist is bad, so Dad agrees to find the child a new therapist. 
  • Mom serves her child a plate of food, but the child refuses to eat unless they get something entirely different, so Mom ends up changing what’s on the plate.
  • Dad would like to have dinner together as a family, but his child throws a tantrum every time, so the parents feed the children separately.
  • Mom wants to talk to her child about their eating disorder, but the child gets upset, so Mom doesn’t bring it up.

In all these situations, anxiety is running the show. It may look like the parent is making the decisions, but in fact, the parent is making decisions to avoid the child’s anxiety.

When it comes to eating disorders, this is dangerous, as it puts anxiety in charge of family decisions, making it more powerful and destructive.

The weird thing is that the more you try to avoid anxiety and make it calm down, the worse it gets.

Anxiety everywhere

As I’m sure you’ve heard – and probably noticed – we’re seeing major increases in anxiety. We’re seeing it in adults, but we’re also seeing extremely high rates of anxiety in kids and teens. In particular, we’re seeing a lot of anxiety when an eating disorder is in the family

I know how challenging it is to be doing the very best you can for your child and still see them struggling with anxiety. Anxiety hurts the person who is experiencing it, and it also drags down the people around them.

Luckily, anxiety is the most well-understood and treatable mental disorder. You can even make a difference in your kids’ anxiety without them wanting you to! 

Anxiety is an interpersonal issue. It looks like the problem is your child. But in fact, while your child might have a natural tendency to be anxious, the anxiety has become a feature of your relationship with her. It lives and grows in the space between you. 

This is what makes it so frustrating. You probably sense that you have some power to change this situation, and that’s why you’re trying to protect her from anxiety, help her avoid it, and reassure her that she shouldn’t be anxious. But everything you try isn’t helping with the long-term problem.

Short term vs. long term impacts

The bad news about anxiety is that it’s a serious problem for our kids. But the good news about anxiety is that there’s a lot we can do as parents to reduce kids’ anxiety.

Here’s what I’d like you to know about anxiety. In the short term, protecting her from anxiety, helping her avoid her anxiety, and reassuring her in an attempt to stop her from feeling anxious may work.

It may get her out the door one time. Maybe she stops screaming one time. It may mean that she settles down one time.

But as you’ve probably seen, doing these things does not reduce anxiety long-term. In fact, protecting, avoiding, and reassuring anxiety is a short-term fix with the long-term consequence of making anxiety worse! 

I know you don’t want that. And that’s a great place to start. Once you recognize that you are a part of your child’s anxiety patterns, we can make changes. 

I have a treatment program that is evidence-based and proven to reduce kids’ anxiety when there is an eating disorder in the family. And the best part about it is that you are the one who is getting the treatment, not your child. Your child doesn’t need to give you permission and they don’t need to engage in treatment for it to be effective.

How parents change anxiety

You have such a significant impact on your kids’ anxiety that we can treat you, and your child will get better. It’s pretty awesome. 

Here are the four things you can do to reduce your kids’ anxiety:

  1. Recognize the signs of anxiety and understand what they mean
  2. Acknowledge that anxiety makes sense and that all feelings are valid – feelings are only a problem if we let them drive our behavior
  3. Support your child in feeling anxiety rather than helping them avoid it with protecting and reassurance
  4. Stop stepping in to help your child avoid feeling anxious

In other words, it’s time to stop having endless conversations about weight, and it’s time to go back to restaurants. It’s time to go on vacations that you plan – as you planned them – and get through finals without losing sleep.

Responding differently

I know this seems impossible right now, but you can learn to respond consistently and powerfully to anxiety when it shows up. You basically say “oh, hi anxiety, here you are. I expected you. It’s fine if you’re here, but you’re not going to run the show. We’re no longer letting you call the shots.”

Over time, your child will build the muscles of anxiety resilience and self-management, which have not developed but can do so with practice. 

Just like learning to ride a bike, things may be wobbly at first, but over time you and your child will figure out how to handle anxiety and move towards self-regulation.

Anxiety is a feature, not a flaw. Having anxiety is not a problem. But anxiety can get out of control if we don’t treat it properly. When you change how you respond to her anxiety, you will see her anxiety get less intense.

If you’d like to find out more about my treatment program for this, it’s called SPACE.

Kimberly, I know this is tough. Almost all parents are facing increased levels of anxiety in their kids right now, and you have the added complication of an eating disorder. 

It’s true that this is hard, but I know you can handle it and help your child – and all of you – feel a lot better.

You can listen to this article as a podcast. Check it out and subscribe using your favorite podcast player.

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Published by Ginny Jones

My mission is to help reduce body hate, disordered eating, and eating disorders.

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