5 Tips for Parents of Kids with Food Allergy-Related Anxiety
by Tamara Hubbard, MA, LCPC
“My child will no longer eat at restaurants when we go out to eat as a family.”
“My child complains of an upset tummy often, especially before or after eating.”
“My daughter won’t ever go to her friend’s house to play, even though she says she would like to hang out with her friend over there.”
“My son reads food labels over and over again, sometimes five to ten times, before
feeling like he can eat a food.”
“My child says she feels like her stomach hurts and her throat is closing after almost every meal she eats.”
Sound familiar? If so, your child may be experiencing food allergy–related anxiety. Here are 5 tips that can help you address and manage your child’s anxiety about food.
1) Aim to manage the anxiety, not completely get rid of it.
Wouldn’t it be great if we never felt anxious or worried? Sure, but that’s not a realistic goal for anyone, so don’t try to remove everything that produces anxiety for your child. The best way you can help your child navigate anxiety is to help them learn to accept its presence, understand it, and develop skills to manage it. Part of understanding anxiety is not only learning about the thoughts and feelings, but also the physiological sensations often associated with the emotions. By gaining this understanding, it allows for more personalized skills that will help your child manage their own anxiety. Focusing on managing the anxiety (rather than avoiding it) often demystifies these thoughts and feelings, which can lead to decreased frequency of anxiety over time. It’s also important to remember that anxious feelings can also be a positive tool, reminding you to assess risk, and motivating you to cope so you can make it through an uncomfortable situation.
2) Avoidance can increase anxiety.
Your natural instinct when you see that something makes your child anxious may be to remove them from the situation, and maybe even avoid similar situations in the future. While it’s important to avoid unsafe situations when managing food allergies, if you find that you and your child are shying away from most activities, you may need to explore if all of them truly have high enough risk levels that they need to be avoided completely, or if you can reassess the risk levels for some. Why is it important not to simply avoid all situations that evoke anxiety? Because it can send a message to your child that the solution to anxious feelings is to avoid, leave, or simply ignore the feelings. Approaching anxiety this way robs them of the opportunity to learn to navigate these feelings, build tools to become more resilient, and gain confidence.
Your natural instinct when you see that something makes your child anxious may be to remove them from the situation, and maybe even avoid similar situations in the future.
3) Be realistic, but positive.
You can’t promise your kids that they will never be faced with anxiety-provoking situations where they may come face-to-face with their allergen, or even experience a reaction. But you can promise them that you are prepared with your emergency action plans, are carrying epinephrine, have educated those around you, and will never put them in situations they feel unprepared to handle without their permission first. When they express fears or worries, promise them that you are there to approach these feelings together as a team. Remind your child that they will learn how to navigate their worry, and they will likely become braver than it over time.
4) Don’t reinforce fears; reinforce skills.
When your child (or you, for that matter) feels a lack of control, it can fuel anxious thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it’s crucial to emphasize the skills they have in their toolkit to navigate and cope with situations, rather than focusing on the fear. Practicing food allergy safety skills often with your child will increase their confidence that they can handle anxiety-provoking situations. If your child presents with the “what ifs” often, use these times as opportunities to talk through the scenarios with them. By exploring situations ahead of time, it reminds them which tools they can use to navigate worrying situations, and which skills they possess to manage their emotions.
Practicing food allergy safety skills often with your child will increase their confidence that they can handle anxiety-provoking situations.
Parents also need to learn how to reinforce skills and not fears in those crucial real-time moments. Rather than responding to your child’s anxiety with phrases like “Don’t worry” or “Everything will be fine,” use messages that reinforce your child’s ability to manage the uneasy feelings. When you’re faced with that upset tummy, rather than trying to reassure with “I’m sure it’s nothing” or even joining right in with their worry, use a skills-focused approach: “Upset tummies are no fun! Let’s use our private investigator skills to figure out why it might be bothering you.” (And then follow up with a team investigation together). When your child won’t eat at the restaurant, instead of focusing on, and inadvertently fueling the emotion by saying “Are you worried? Is your tummy upset?,” focus on the skills by saying something like “I wonder if we should review our safe restaurant eating tools again to make sure we’ve used them all. Remember when we ate at [insert restaurant]? We used all of these tools and we ate safely.” (Maybe even have a checklist handy for your child to actually use at restaurants.)
Rather than responding to your child’s anxiety with phrases like “Don’t worry” or “Everything will be fine,” use messages that reinforce your child’s ability to manage the uneasy feelings.
5) Model healthy anxiety management.
There’s no way around this one – your child watches how you manage (or don’t manage) your own fears, worries, and anxiety. Children key into your words, your tone and body language, and your actions. Most kids are typically skilled enough to pick up on the discrepancies, too. If you say you aren’t worried, yet your child always overhears you talking to a friend about how anxious you are that a reaction will happen, it sends mixed messages. Does that mean parents aren’t allowed to have anxiety or fears? Absolutely not! (Refer back to tip #1, which applies to kids and adults alike.) Parents, especially those managing food allergies, often have elevated levels of anxiety, especially in certain situations. It’s OK to be honest about being anxious or worried as a parent, but learning how to cope with these emotions and practicing what you are preaching is absolutely crucial. Showing your child that you’re tolerating or accepting your own stress and using healthy skills to manage your own anxiety will help them learn and adopt these skills, too.
Tamara Hubbard is a family therapy–trained licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Illinois. In addition to general counseling, she specializes in supporting clients managing food allergies, especially parents and caregivers. She created the Food Allergy Counselor Directory and website to help families locate food allergy–informed clinical counseling providers and food allergy mental health resources. Tamara is an allied health professional member of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, as well as the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. You can learn more about Tamara, search the directory, and read her food allergy blog at FoodAllergyCounselor.com.
If you or your child is experiencing elevated levels of anxiety that are negatively affecting daily life, please consider seeking guidance from a licensed clinical counseling professional, preferably a food allergy–knowledgeable one. You can find one via the Food Allergy Counselor Directory at FoodAllergyCounselor.com/Directory.
This article was published in Coping© with Allergies & Asthma magazine, Fall/Winter 2019-2020.