Your Child and Food Allergy Fear and Anxiety

in Food Allergy
Published: November 30, 2011

The experts say well-meaning parents often say too much, too soon to their children about the risks of food allergies. The result: more and more kids with allergies – and anxiety. This special report, first published in Allergic Living magazine in 2008, explores the line between caution and fear.

YOUNG DEVON used to love food, but no more. Following some upheaval in her 8-year-old life – a move last fall from Toronto to scenic Woodstock, New York, and an allergic reaction in a restaurant in the new town – Devon has developed serious food “issues”.

The girl, who’s allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, no longer even trusts her mother’s cooking. Daily, she pulls food packages out of the garbage to triple-check the ingredients for allergens. She’s so fearful about what fellow classmates might eat that her mother, Anna Ross, must physically remove her daughter from the car when taking her to school.

“It’s a drama, it’s tears, it’s dragging her up the walkway and handing her off.” Sometimes, the girl will wear her gloves all day to avoid touching anything in the classroom.

But Ross doesn’t attribute her daughter’s obsession only to the restaurant reaction, which was moderate (swelling of the throat and lips), or the move. These were contributing factors. Ross suspects it was her own efforts to educate a new school community and classmates about the seriousness of food allergies and the need for vigilance that got the wheels churning in her daughter’s head.

During a quick session in front of Devon’s class, curious kids put up their hands to ask: “Could she die if she ate a nut?” While Ross played down the possibility, Devon, at the age of 8, was listening with a new attentiveness. Today, the girl expresses a fear of dying and is seeing a child psychologist, while her mother suffers guilt about whether she said too much in front of her.

In an e-mail to Allergic Living, Ross asked a heart-wrenching question: “should an 8-year-old have to fear her mortality like that?”

She is not alone in her worries. Increasingly, parents are noticing that what they say and do to manage a child’s food allergies, even their very demeanor on the topic, affects the child’s sense of security – or lack of it. Through our e-mail registry, Allergic Living asked parents how they spoke to their food allergic kids about anaphylaxis, and if they had concerns that they might be scaring them, in addition to teaching them precautions.

The topic clearly struck a chord, with over hundreds of responses arriving in a few days. Many spoke of the tough balancing act of instructing a child to always be vigilant about avoiding allergens, to not eat unknown foods, to have an auto-injector at the ready at all times, to communicate concepts such as cross-contamination in food preparation, but not to tip the child over the edge into fearfulness and take away the joy of being a kid.

Unfortunately, the balance quite frequently does tilt to anxiety: the mother of a girl the same age as Devon referred to her peanut-allergic daughter’s “fear and extreme sense of self-protection.” Several parents spoke of turning to the “fear factor” about anaphylaxis to drive home to young allergic kids that they have to be careful around food. But conflict about the impact was evident.

One mother related that her son was so “stressed out” about his peanut allergy that she had him tested for an ulcer at the age of 9 (he didn’t have one). Reader Kimberley McNabb spoke of her 10-year-old’s refusal to eat even safe foods at friends’ homes. While she thinks nothing is more important than being prepared to deal with a serious reaction, she added: “my hope is that I haven’t instilled a fear in my son that in future only adds to the stresses of the risk of anaphylaxis.”

How to Have the Allergy Talk with Kids, Teens

When it comes to food allergies,“there is so much anxiety,” says Dr. Zave Chad, an allergist and former head of the allergy section of the Canadian Pediatric Society. He notes that there does not appear to be nearly as much stress among children and parents coping with asthma – and yet there are far more deaths caused by that disease than by anaphylactic food reactions.

Beth Goldstein, a social worker in private practice who provides counseling for families with food-allergic children, expresses concern that anxiousness surrounding allergies can affect children’s confidence and how they’ll live their lives. “If they are afraid, I’m not sure they will reach their potential, they could hold themselves back from opportunities.”

Next: Loaded terms and miscommunication