Stress can spark disordered eating. While the relationship between the two is complex and varies by person, many people turn to food — or away from food — in times of stress. Controlling food intake becomes a way to cope.
In other words, “many people react to stress by under- or over-eating,” according to Jamie Manwaring, PhD, a primary therapist at Eating Recovery Center’s Child and Adolescent Behavioral Hospital.
When stress strikes, kids may also seek comfort in bingeing or restricting how much they eat.
Parents and caregivers can help their kids learn to cope with stress healthfully and create a safe and open environment. Here are expert tips on how to help.
1. Help your child create more downtime.
Kids who are driven and perfectionistic can unwittingly increase their stress. “For children and adolescents, overscheduling and the desire to achieve in multiple clubs, AP classes [and] sports can cumulatively lead to stress that is dealt with in unhealthy ways, such as disordered eating or exercise,” according to Manwaring.
That’s why she suggested helping “your child decrease the amount of clubs, activities, and competitive sports in their lives to allow for more play and downtime.”
It’s important for parents to be proactive, especially “when you have a perfectionistic child who may have difficulty making these decisions themselves.”
Plus, downtimes teaches kids “how to regulate themselves and realize that they do not have to be constantly on the go,” said Mehri D. Moore, MD, founder and medical director at The Moore Center.
2. Be a role model for stress relief and reasonable schedules.
“Parents also need to model, as much as possible, balance in their own lives between work, family and fulfilling their own needs so their children can learn from example,” Dr. Moore said.
3. When your child comes to you, give them your full attention.
In other words, avoid distractions like electronic devices. Don’t scan your cell phone, for instance, Manwaring said.
4. Don’t rush to fix or problem-solve.
When your child vents to you, practice active listening skills by mirroring back what they say, Marwaring said. Unless your child asks for help, don’t try to fix or problem-solve too quickly, she said. “Often the best stress relief is knowing that someone listens and cares.”
5. Teach your child how to soothe themselves.
Practice self-soothing techniques when your child is calm. Manwaring suggested: “deep breathing (‘picture filling your belly like a balloon’), listening to soothing music, visualization (e.g. picturing distressing emotions in clouds or bubbles that float away) and repeating soothing words internally (e.g., ‘I am OK,’ or ‘I am relaxed.’).”
6. Carve out family time.
“Creating time for family is important so parents can talk to their children about their daily lives and help them to deal with stressful situations as they arise,” Dr. Moore said.
7. Don’t forget the power of a hug — or even a high-five.
“All of us can be soothed by human touch. Even older kids benefit from hugs and high-fives,” Manwaring said.
Kids are just as susceptible to stress as adults. And they’re just as prone to engaging in unhealthy behaviors to cope with it. But parents and caregivers can help by teaching and modeling healthy tools and techniques — and by being there to listen.
What are other ways to help kids cope with stress?
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Last reviewed: 3 Mar 2014