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Food Allergy

Your Child and Food Allergy Fears

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). Kimberley McNabb of Collingwood, Ontario, 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.”

When it comes to food allergies,“there is so much anxiety,” says Dr. Zave Chad, an Ottawa allergist and president 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 Toronto 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.”

Loaded Gun Analogy
Doesn’t Help

So how did we reach the point where the manner in which we teach children about one serious condition can lead to a level of anxiety that’s not healthy? Experts think it may start with how we explain food allergy to others. “If you listen to the way some parents talk,” says Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada, “they say, ‘this could kill him’ or ‘bringing a peanut butter sandwich to school is like bringing a loaded gun.’

“It has great visual effect, but often the child is within earshot, and is that the image you want your child to have?”

Chad agrees that such terms can be harmful. “Back in the early 1990s, in the days when people thought food allergies were ‘in your head’ and people were not buying into the seriousness, discussing the potential for severe reactions was very useful,” he says. “It galvanized the community, it got people working on this.

“But I think the pendulum has now swung a little too far the other way.” He says emphasis on severe reactions can frighten parents and that affects how they communicate with the community – and their children. “Kids pick up on the anxiety of parents extremely quickly,” Chad says. “The parent who is over-anxious is not helpful to their child.”

Jill Fraser became so stressed about her son’s allergies that she lost sleep, felt tension in her shoulders and jaw, and stepped up control over her allergic child, who was not sleeping well either. Fraser’s son, Harper, was found to have a milk allergy, then later, at 18 months, a peanut allergy.

With the peanut diagnosis, Fraser cried at the pressure she felt to keep her little boy safe. At first, she wouldn’t even take Harper down the supermarket aisle where peanut butter was on the shelf. Fraser had more reason than most to worry; a childhood schoolmate had died from an accidental exposure to peanuts.

Next Page: Turning Down the Anxiety