A fact of life: Parents worry.
We try not to. We know we’d be better off if we didn’t. But the bottom line is that being a parent comes with many doubts and fears, and if you throw food allergies into the mix, those worries can accelerate pretty quickly.
“What if my daughter shares lunch items with a friend at school? Or grabs a treat from the school party without realizing there are peanuts inside?”
“What if kids bully my son because his food allergies make him ‘different?’”
“What if my child has an anaphylactic reaction at recess and no one can help her administer her epinephrine?”
All of these “what ifs” can keep you up at night, and here’s one more: What if all of my worries bleed onto my child, adding an undercurrent of anxiety that detracts from his quality of life?
If you find yourself hopping on the “what if” train more than you’d like, here’s something to keep in mind: you’re not alone. Allergies are affecting more and more children, and most parents of food-allergic kids have deep concerns about their child’s allergies.
To understand the growth of food allergies in this country, consider these statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the incidence of food allergies in U.S. children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. And between 1997 and 2008, allergies to peanuts and tree nuts more than tripled.
Today, it’s estimated that roughly two children per school classroom suffer from food allergies—and allergies can be very scary. In mild cases, they may cause rashes or wheezing, but in more severe cases, they can lead to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.
So don’t beat yourself up for worrying about your child’s allergies. There are plenty of food allergies around and plenty of parents worrying about them, and sometimes those anxieties can be constructive, propelling you to proactively protect your child. The challenge is to give those worries parameters so that they can work positively for you and your child and keep you out of negative, fear-laden territory.
Here are a few suggestions for dealing with your anxieties in a way that will be empowering for both you and your child.
Help yourself. If you’ve traveled by plane recently, you’ve heard the spiel about putting on your own oxygen first so that you have the mental and physical facilities to help your child with theirs. The same applies here. If you need help processing the emotions that you have surrounding your child’s food allergies (including trauma from close-call experiences in the past), consider talking to a mental health provider. This may equip you to better guide your child through their own anxieties.
Offer reassuring dialogue. Though you may be tempted to express your fears, keep your words reassuring. Phrases like, “We’ll get through this,” can be very helpful to a child who is scared of the unknown.
Educate. Knowledge is power—especially in this situation. For kids with food allergies, the unknown is often the scary part, and the loss of control over an uncertain future can be very difficult. You can help them take back a measure of control by equipping them with the knowledge they will need to handle different situations. Spend time teaching them more about how food allergies work, how to read food labels, and how and when to use their epinephrine auto injector.
Roleplay. Knowing something in your head and putting it in motion are two different things. So once you educate your child, give them practice acting out actual strategies. Consider these scenarios:
- Here is a bag of candy bars. Look at each one and tell me which ones are safe to eat and which ones you should stay away from.
- What should you do if your friend tells you she wants to switch sandwiches with you at lunch?
- How could you react if kids are teasing you about your food allergies?
- What should you do if you feel your throat tightening up (or some other serious allergy symptom)?
Create balance. Food allergies can consume you and your child, but try to create balance. Take time out to do things that relax and center you. This may mean that you get a really great babysitter who knows how to manage your child’s allergies so that you can get away with your spouse. For your child, this can include allowing them to have plenty of fun in safe ways and to develop hobbies and interests that they find fulfilling and confidence-building.
Develop a support system. People who have not had experiences with food allergies may not understand what a big part of life they can be. Sometimes, you may feel like a lone soldier as you deal with your child’s allergies day in and day out. It can help both you and your child to create an understanding and empathetic support system. You might find this through an in-person or online support group. You can also educate people close to you and your child so that they can be more empathetic and validating.
Consider making a presentation in your child’s school class (if they feel comfortable with it) so that their peers understand more about food allergies. You should also communicate with teachers, administrators, nurses, and cafeteria workers at your child’s school so that they can help keep your child safe and serve as allies as your child navigates allergy-related challenges.
Seek help. It used to be that food allergy sufferers were told to simply avoid problem foods, but there are new approaches to food allergy treatment that offer exciting alternatives. Sublingual immunotherapy works similar to allergy shots, except that it is dosed under the tongue. The sublingual droplets can be prescribed by a physician and contain traces of food proteins suspended in a liquid saline solution. Over time, the body can become desensitized to these proteins so that kids can eat more of the foods they love.
Rather than feeling trapped with food allergies, talk to your doctor about emerging treatment options in the form of milk, wheat, and nut allergy treatment.
Children take cues from their parents, so your efforts to project a strong and knowledgeable approach to food allergies can help turn something overwhelming for your child into something doable. In that way, you can help change your child’s perspective on food allergies from a frustrating and scary curse to a challenge that—like so many other challenges in life—can be managed and learned from.