Managing Anxiety at Family Meals – The Family Dinner Project

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We love family dinner for a lot of reasons, but especially because of the opportunity to relax and bond with each other. It’s a reliable time of day when everyone can gather, catch up with one another, and enjoy good food and conversation before taking care of evening chores, homework and other obligations. So why would we be concerned about managing anxiety at family meals?

The reality is that there are any number of reasons why anxiety might show up to dinner as an uninvited guest. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are fairly common: about 19 percent of adults in the US, and almost 32 percent of teens, experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year alone. And we know that since the pandemic began in 2020, mental health challenges in people of all ages, but especially children, have risen dramatically. That means an awful lot of family meals could be impacted by anxiety.

Besides the statistics, it’s worth recognizing that mealtimes come with a few potential triggers for anxious thoughts or behaviors. A loud, boisterous, stimulating environment at the table might make more introverted or sensitive family members feel anxious. Knowing that there’s likely to be tension, arguing or rigid enforcement of high expectations for behavior can also cause heightened anxiety. For some kids, transition times can be challenging, so stopping an activity to have dinner can cause an anxious reaction. Some people may have experienced distressing experiences at the dinner table, like witnessing an intoxicated, angry parent, or even violence at the table, so that mealtime can trigger anxiety. And food itself can be triggering – whether due to feeding problems, sensory challenges, body dysmorphia or other serious behavioral health issues, the act of eating all on its own might cause an anxious response.

But the good news is that research shows that, much of the time, family meals can actually lower the prevalence of mental health issues in both kids and adults, so dinnertime may be an activity worth keeping on the schedule if you’re hoping to either prevent or reduce the impact of anxiety in your home. Of course, it’s a bit more involved than just putting some food on the table and telling people to sit down and eat it together! Here are some thoughtful tips and tools you can use to manage anxiety at your family dinner table.

  • Begin with an anxiety-busting ritual. Sometimes, just having a way to transition into mealtimes can send our nervous systems a soothing signal. Some families light candles at the table. Others start a family dinner playlist to provide background music, or play a round of Rose, Thorn, and Bud to start the meal. You could also try Humming Bee Breathing or a game of Concentration ABCs to get everyone quiet and calm.
  • Maintain a positive atmosphere. Make dinner welcoming for everyone by eliminating stress as much as possible. That means doing your best not to comment on what people eat or don’t eat, keeping criticism off the menu, and steering conversation topics away from hot-button issues. Some families find that it’s helpful to have a distracting activity ready to enjoy together, like reading a chapter of a book at dinnertime or playing a card game while eating. And make sure any expectations are realistic and age-appropriate. Forcing wiggly kids to sit for long periods of time, or making a big deal out of a teenager slouching in his seat rather than focusing on his contributions to the conversation, is more likely than not to backfire.
  • Be conscious of triggers. Take note of the things that seem to cause stress and anxiety for individual family members. Is the smell or texture of certain foods too challenging? Does laughter and loud conversation become overwhelming? Is it anxiety-provoking to be “called on” to take a turn answering a conversation starter? Knowing what causes feelings of anxiety is key to resolving the challenge.
  • Set the scene for success. There’s no one right way to have family dinner, so feel free to be creative and flexible to help everyone feel welcome. Depending on your family’s needs and preferences, it may be easier to offer a change of scenery – eating on a picnic blanket, on the couch, or gathered around the kitchen island instead of at the table might be one way to lower any sense of pressure. Or you might offer coping tools that can be used during the meal, like a soothing fidget item, weighted blankets or lap pads, or meditation music.

Anxiety is a common challenge, and it can impact every aspect of life, including family mealtimes. But there are ways to make shared meals a welcoming, calming part of the day. You’ve got this!

Food

Photo credit: Joanne Smith/Headshots

Offer up some customizable comfort food, like this chicken and rice soup that lets everyone add their choice of toppings, for a stress-busting family dinner.

Cambodian Chicken Rice Soup

Fun

Transition to a peaceful mealtime or disrupt table tension with this calming, sensory-focused activity for all ages.

5-4-3-2-1

Conversation

Focus on self-care with these collections of conversation starters dedicated to mental health, stress management, and more.

Talking About: Managing Anxiety



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