Food Allergies and Anxiety
By Patience Domowski, LCSW
More and more children seem to be developing food allergies these days. Kids with severe reactions often are very anxious about their allergies because they don’t want the consequences of a reaction (such as trouble breathing), and can be worried that other people won’t be understanding of their allergy. For example a child who had to be hospitalized for going into anaphylactic shock from peanut butter on someone’s fingers at a birthday party is naturally going to be little more wary and even nervous to attend another birthday party. They don’t want to end up in the hospital again! Or another child who tells their friend’s mom they can’t have seafood and the mom serves shrimp for dinner anyway might be concerned that people don’t understand them or care. Sometimes kids even get teased about their allergies or told they aren’t real. This is very upsetting for the allergic child and can make them quite frightened as some kids’ allergic reactions are life -threatening.
Ways to help your food-allergic child feel less anxious:
-Teach them nice ways to explain to others about their allergies, maybe even give them little business cards with information on it to pass out to friends and friend’s parents so they understand a little better.
-Teach them how to check food labels so they can be confident what they eat won’t make them react, and ask grown-ups present to help them double-check as well
-Remind them that just because they had an allergic reaction in a certain situation before (like at a party, or school), doesn't mean it will happen again- child and family will be more careful next time
-Remind them of the protocol of what to do if they think they are having an allergic reaction and who to ask for help, carry epi-pen if needed or other medications
-Teach some coping strategies for anxiety such as deep breathing, thinking happy/calm thoughts, and making a plan to handle problems that arise
-Joining a food allergy support group can be helpful for parents and children
-If they continue to show excessive anxiety, have them see a child behavioral therapist
Ways to help others understand your child’s allergies:
-Provide some basic education, nicely, to other parents, friends, teachers, etc on how the food allergy affects your child and what they need to avoid and how (can they just not ingest a food, or not even be near it?)
-Remind friend’s parents before a playdate or party and also pack safe foods for your child so the other parent doesn't have to worry about what to feed your child at their house
-Even if your child has a 504 for allergies at school, inform any new teachers or lunch aides about the allergies, and ask teachers to tell other parents coming into the classroom with food for parties about the concerns. Suggest other options that won’t affect your child like toys, stickers, or other foods that are safe and yummy to bring in to the class, or say you will provide all treats for your child at these events.
-If your child is being teased or bullied about allergies, provide some education to the other person about the seriousness of the reaction and why its not cool to be mean about it. Report the bullying incidents to the authorities such as school staff or adults in charge at the event.
-Tell teachers and other adults involved with your child some ways you are working on teaching coping strategies to your child to handle their anxieties like ‘remind them to take deep breaths’ or ‘please tell my child I packed his lunch so he doesn't need to worry’, etc.
-Give everyone written and verbal information on how to handle allergic reactions, symptoms and how to dispense medication in case something does happen. For example while the school nurse is trained to use an epi-pen, the chaperone on a field trip might not be trained, so they would need that information in advance
Connect with other parents dealing with same situation for more ideas and supports. Make sure your child is getting support as well if they are emotionally affected by their allergies.