I hear time and again about kids, usually around the age of 6 or 7, who start to exhibit signs of anxiety about their food allergy. I know my own son went through a rough period at age 6. He became fearful if someone, whether they were eating peanut products or not, touched him during lunch at school. A few times he came home in a different shirt than he went to school in. The assistant teacher was wonderful with him when these incidents would occur: She would calmly address the situation, and allowing him to change shirts was a quick and easy solution that eased his anxiety immediately.
I’m by no means a child psychology, but I have thought about why so many food-allergic kids go through an anxiety period around this age. My theory probably doesn’t apply to every child, but I think it helps explain what some children go through, especially sensitive kids who are fairly self-aware, as many kids with food allergies are since they need to be able to identify when they’re having a reaction.
As food allergy parents, many of us witnessed our child go through an allergic reaction, and all of us received the life-changing news that our child has one or more food allergies. For the most part, food allergies are first discovered sometime between the ages of 6 months and three years, when our children are young enough that they are either completely unaware or at least don’t fully grasp the impact of a food allergy diagnosis.
By the time our child is six years old or so, we have been managing food allergies for 3+ years and are feeling more confident with our ability to keep our child safe. But by age 6 or 7, our child has started school and is just now becoming fully aware of how he’s different from other kids. While we have had 3+ years to get more comfortable with the diagnosis, for our child, this is a period of awakening of sorts and it’s akin to us hearing the food allergy diagnosis for the first time. He’s also beginning to fully realize the possible consequences of making a mistake. It’s around this age, or soon after, that many kids ask their parents, “Could I die from my food allergy?”
Healthy Fear vs. Anxiety
So as parents, how do we instill a healthy sense of fear in our children so that they keep themselves safe, rather than become anxiety ridden and decrease their quality of life? And how can we help our child if she does show signs of anxiety? I asked some experienced food allergy moms about food allergy-related anxiety and their responses are below.
“Fear is important in our lives as its purpose is to alert us to danger. We took the approach of using that fear in our favor. But that was only after witnessing him experience anxiety over his allergies with some wild concepts of how a peanut might end up in mouth. He thought that if he
was at a friend’s house and there was an earthquake, the jar containing peanuts on the fridge, would fall, break open and a peanut would land in his mouth. This was the red flag that he had unhealthy anxiety.
We did not mess around. We immediately went to see a child psychologist who very quickly taught all of techniques for examining situations to determine real fear and how to be prepared for an emergency. It was life changing and very easy!” — Caroline Moassessi, Grateful Foodie
“My son, River, was diagnosed with food allergies before he was a year old and he is now 11. He will be graduating elementary school this year. We have been fortunate that he does not have anxiety about his food allergies. This may be because they have always been a part of his life. He doesn’t know life otherwise. He does recall having a reaction at Panera Bread when he was three years old. Although it was only hives (eyes swelled shut), that experience is memorable to him and helps to keep him safe. Because of that memory, he is careful about avoiding potentially unsafe foods. He knows that his food allergies are potentially life threatening and if he’s unsure of the ingredients, he avoids the food. I believe that instilling that at a young age, has made it part of his life and habits. In his first years of preschool and elementary school, I asked parents to contact me in advance if they were sending in treats for the students on special occasions. This would give me the opportunity to provide him with a safe treat and not be excluded. I also provided him with a snack box with safe treats to be kept in the classroom for the occasions that I didn’t receive notifications. There were times that he got off the school bus and his first words were that the class received a treat and he didn’t. He has grown to understand and be okay with not receiving the same treat or a treat at all. He also did not want a snack/treat box this year. My husband and I often say, “Life isn’t always fair,” and that “Everyone is different in their own way.” Perhaps he is beginning to understand.” — Theresa Marie Green, Owner of Allergy Apparel
“I believe there are different ages when certain topics are appropriate and healthy to have with your child. My son is 8 years old and I have decided to teach him about his allergies in a way that I feel is appropriate for him. I have always told him that if he is exposed to his allergens then he could have many different reactions and get very sick. Up until recently, I have never told him that he could die from an allergic reaction. I have only had these conversations recently because my son has asked me if he can die from it. This question forced me to have this conversation with him, but I still did it in a way that I believe is best for my son without putting too much fear into him. Thankfully we have not yet had any anxiety regarding his food allergies, but he definitely has anxiety about other things and may one day have food allergy fears. If and when that day comes then we will most likely speak to a professional that can help ease his fears. But right now he seems to be very confident and even proud to have food allergies. He told me that his favorite color is teal.” — Lisa Rutter, Founder of No Nuts Moms Group & Director of Support Group Development, Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT)
Tips to Lessen Anxiety (& Minimize the Possibility of a Reaction)
- Always provide safe food alternatives. Having food from home not only minimizes the chance of your child eating his allergen, it also eases the anxieties of wondering whether there will be anything safe to eat or having to try a new food or brand during a social event.
- Allow your child to talk through his feelings without judgment. You can empathize with his feelings without leading him to believe that his irrational fears are justified (as in Caroline’s son’s wild scenario of peanuts landing in his mouth during an earthquake).
- Address the root cause of the anxiety. Talk to your child and try to find out what the underlying worries are. For example, if your child has a fear of eating an unsafe food and then having a severe reaction, involve him in reading labels and packing lunches. Explain how epinephrine works. Knowing that the medication that he always has available can halt anaphylaxis if it’s used as soon as a reaction is identified (or he realizes he’s eaten his allergen) is comforting. See here for an explanation of epinephrine’s effects.
- Involve him in managing his food allergy. Show young children the label and point out why the food is safe or unsafe. Allow older children to read the label. (Of course you’ll want to check too before he takes a bite.) Discuss his Food Allergy Action Plan. Encourage him to discuss his food allergy with the manager and server the next time you go to a restaurant. Teach him to grocery shop, cook, and bake.
- Seek professional help. If anxiety continues to affect your child’s mood or daily activities, seek professional help, either by asking a friend or support group member for a recommendation or talking to your child’s doctor for a referral.