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Food Allergy

Your Child and Food Allergy Fears

How can parents avoid this undue anxiety and instill caution without fear?

“We have to acknowledge that there are no easy answers,” says Dr. Jane Garland, a child psychiatrist and professor at the University of British Columbia, who heads the B.C. Children’s Hospital’s Mood and Anxiety Disorders Clinic in Vancouver.

But she says food allergic kids will take comfort if they know that the adults around them – parents, daycare workers, teachers or coaches – are well-informed about managing their condition.

“That’s their safety net. Then they feel that the burden is not all on them,” she says. “That really reduces children’s anxiety – ‘somebody’s in charge here and knows what to do if there’s a problem.’”

Garland thinks getting a realistic estimate of the level of risk from an allergist is also a good idea. If the child does not fit the profile of those at greatest risk of an anaphylactic reaction, let him know, as that should offer comfort. If the risk is high, let the child know it’s still very manageable, and that the “safety net” is in place. She says a big part of child anxiety management, in any circumstance, is knowing the likelihood, and having the skills to deal with it.

Anxiety, unfortunately, is common in our modern world, even before food allergies are taken into consideration. Fifteen per cent of children are anxious just by temperment. “Since allergies are common and anxieties are common, there are going to be lots of kids who have both,” Garland says. Yet anxiety does have its place.

‘When You’re Afraid, You
Can’t Think Straight’

Lynn Miller, a psychologist and assistant professor at UBC, notes that it can make us aware of a danger or threat: historically it alerted us to predators in our environment, such as wild animals.” But what it won’t help is the child trying to manage food allergies.

“The problem is when you’re afraid, you have less ability to think straight,” says Miller, who specializes in childhood anxiety. This is because the physiological reaction to fear is to prepare for flight: blood drains from the brain to the muscles, the stomach fills with acid.

This state doesn’t allow a child to size up the risks accurately in a new environment, such as on a field trip or at a new friend’s home.

What the parent wants, she says, “is a child who’s calmly assessing the situation rather than one who’s frightened and unable to assess properly.” Nor will such a condition help in dealing with an emergency, asking for help or administering an auto-injector.

Miller says “cautiousness” is the place where kids can best deal with their allergies. The parent who stays attuned should be able to spot the difference between caution and excessive anxiety.

Children with the latter are likely to have physical symptoms: stomach aches are the leading indicator, followed by headaches, and clinging or not wanting to go to events. Anxiety disorder associations caution to watch for daily and uncontrollable worrying over several months.

Miller says learning some responsibility to manage allergies independently can help kids to arrive at caution over fear. Once they’re old enough, she suggests that participating in sleepovers (at homes with fully informed parents) is a good way to boost their confidence.

It’s useful for parents to know that there are certain ages at which kids’ brains are growing rapidly, giving them an increased capacity both to think – and to get anxious.

Next Page: Talk About ‘the Likelihood’

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.