Living Well

Children and Food Allergy Fears

Last updated: Nov 22, 2017

A food allergy diagnosis in a child can be life changing for the entire family and is an especially difficult adjustment for parents. Families need to learn how to safely navigate life for their child—not only in their own home but at school, at restaurants, while at birthday parties, and wherever else they may be outside the home. Having a child with a food allergy is even more challenging when visiting family and friends during the holidays, when much of the food being consumed is not your own.

Melissa Breslin, a member of Summit Medical Group’s Behavioral Health and Cognitive Therapy Center team, is fully aware of the fears surrounding food allergies in both children and adults, but remains confident that every parent has the ability to recognize and reduce those stresses.

Q&A with Melissa Breslin, MA, MSW, LCSW, ACT

Q: What are signs a parent should look for in their child that indicate their child is experiencing anxiety due to their food allergy?

  • Repetitive, reassurance seeking questions such as “Are you sure I can eat this?” or “Did you check the label?”
  • Ritualized eating such as taking small bites or moving the food around on their plate
  • Avoiding activities that will have food present (ex. birthday parties) or reporting persistent worries about those activities
  • Refusing to eat outside of the home
  • Weight loss as documented by a pediatrician
  • A sudden shift in food repertoire and what the child is willing to eat. For example, consistently giving up foods they previously ate and enjoyed

Q: What can a parent do if they feel their child is beginning to develop signs of anxiety over their food allergy?

  • Explore the child’s thinking about what they have observed.
    • Example: “It seems that you have been more worried and nervous about your food allergy. How can I help?”
  • Speak with the child about what specifically would make them more comfortable or be helpful to them.
    • Examples: A scheduled visit to the allergist to discuss their specific worries or speaking with others such as teachers, coaches or a friend’s parent in more detail about their allergy.
  • Create a plan with the child to change some behaviors that have recently developed from the fear.
    • Examples: Create a plan for the child to start eating out at restaurants again, set boundaries for reassurance seeking questions, slowly introduce foods that the child previously ate but has stopped eating.

These changes are most successful when each step is broken down into parts that are manageable for the child.  For example, a first step might be to go to a restaurant, with the family, while eating food they brought from home.

Q: What are some coping strategies for parents who are experiencing anxiety themselves over their child’s safety due to a food allergy?

  • Speak with the child’s allergist or pediatrician
  • Discuss with other parents that have children with a food allergies
    • Be cautious about joining social media groups and forums. These groups tend to increase anxiety in parents.

Q: What can parents do to reduce the negative associations their child has around food, due to an allergy?

  • It is helpful for parents to work on managing their own stress and anxiety related to their child’s allergies. It is imperative to teach children the facts about their allergy and how to manage it, but a parent’s excess anxiety and worries are not helpful for the child.
  • If parents can ensure a safe environment, they should (as much as possible) allow the child to participate in activities where food will be present—even if that means having the child bring their own food.
  • If the child is focusing on how their allergy makes them different, help the child make a list of all the ways in which they are similar to their peers. They could also help the child make a list of differences other people have.
  • If possible, it may be helpful for the child to speak to another child with food allergies.

Q: How can families support and guide treatment for a child with food allergies?

  • Work as a team
  • Despite a child’s anxiety, require that they make behavioral changes with small steps
  • Limit reassurance. Instead, support the child by emphasizing your understanding of how difficult it must be.
  • Discuss an emergency plan with the child’s allergist or pediatrician on how to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction.
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