Your Child and Food Allergy Fears
“One of those times is between 7 and 8, when many kids develop a lot of worry about germs, disasters and things going wrong,” says Garland.
She sees Anna Ross’s daughter Devon as a good example. “In her case, it has more to do with food, but at that age, she might have developed the same thing around something else.”A later brain growth spurt comes just before adolescence (which Miller notes can vary from age 10 in girls to age 14 in boys).
Many parents told Allergic Living that they impress upon young children the risk of dying from an anaphylactic reaction. The intent is to get the child to pay attention and manage the allergies, but several experts cautioned against such language.
“I don’t think it’s that helpful,” says Garland. “I can think of very few situations where such kids need to be told – ‘you could die from this.’ It’s one of those phrases that is terrifying for anyone at any age.”
Instead, she suggests saying: “You have to be careful because if you have a reaction to this food, you might not be able to breathe. That’s different language.” A young child can’t grasp the concept of death, she notes, but “not being able to breathe is more meaningful because people need to be able to breathe to live. It’s put in the positive framework.”
Or, she would say: “you would feel really, really sick. They don’t want to feel really sick.”
Some parents said they use the “you could die” approach with young kids as a type of pre-emptive parenting: trying to instill a fear of anaphylaxis early to keep a child vigilant during the rebellious teen years.
Garland says that strategy can backfire, since kids re-evaluate “almost everything” as teenagers. She cautions that if a teenager decides you’ve been too dramatic in your portrayal of the risks, “the parent’s credibility goes down.” Better to update the information you’re giving to a child according to the age, stage of development and level of understanding.”
To speak to Garland, the co-author of a book called Taming Worry Dragons, is to appreciate the information overload in some young brains.
“We see kids who are terrified about global warming. They say, ‘The icecaps are going to melt, we’re going to be flooded’. They’re worried about ‘we shouldn’t be driving in the car – because we’re poisoning the atmosphere’. Earthquake drills in school make them afraid of earthquakes.
Children hear these things and it’s up to the adults to really put it into context with ‘the likelihood’. That’s a big part of anxiety management: ‘How likely is it to happen?’And if it could happen, do you have the skills to deal with it.”
Kids who get so stressed about allergies that it interferes with their ability to sleep or eat or socialize can learn skills for anxiety management. With those, Garland says, “if they start to worry they know how to calm themselves down physically or to distract themselves.” (These skills include breathing exercises, and someone to talk to who is reassuring.)
She notes the positive as well: a great number of children do a wonderful job of managing their food allergies. She thinks we should also listen and learn from them.
‘Make Your Children Understand,
But Don’t Scare Them’
Matthew Lindsay, an 11-year-old from Toronto, is such a kid. He has asthma and allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and scallops, and has been through his own bad bouts with fear. With his mom’s help, Matthew says he’s learning to not be fearful, and offers this wise counsel for parents: “Don’t freak out. Don’t make this a matter of ‘you make one mistake, and you’re dead’.
“Make your children understand, but don’t scare them. Just explain to them that they are allergic and it can be dangerous but if you’re careful, read ingredients and have your EpiPen, you should be fine,” he says. Matthew used to get nervous just at the sight of a nut and would ask for Benadryl.
His mother Patrice Lindsay would reply, “you haven’t had any direct contact, so let’s give it a few minutes. Tell me if your throat is closing, I don’t see a rash.”
The experts like that kind of calm approach; it helps the child learn to think, not panic.
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