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Food Allergy

Your Child and Food Allergy Fear and Anxiety

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.”

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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.

But she even became worried that the boy might react to other major allergens: from shellfish to sulfites to stinging insects. For a time, Harper was afraid of playing in the grass because of bees. She was trying to control her son’s every movement.

“On the swing, I’d say, ‘careful Harper’ or when he was going down a set of stairs ‘careful Harper,’ running around the yard ‘careful Harper. “I over-controlled regular things to make up for this monster (anaphylaxis) that I could not control.”

Talking to a psychologist helped, causing her to realize that she was over-compensating. Fraser is still vigilant about managing her 4-year-old’s allergies, but feels a greater sense of calm. Both she and Harper are sleeping better, and she speaks to him in a more relaxed fashion.

For the first time, she’s even hired a non-family member to care for her two kids while she’s at work. Her anxious parenting had caused some tension with her husband (whom she found “too care-free”). But now “we are functioning better. We have more common ground with our strategies for parenting.”

Next page: The ever-present fear of death

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