Emotional Impact of Food Allergies
Your child has food allergies. The allergies may be minor or life-threatening. No matter how serious the food allergies are, they likely distinguish your child from many of his classmates. What is the emotional impact you can expect? How can you and your babysitter help your child adapt? (Note: all points below involve thorough communication between you and your babysitter as both of you need to know what the allergies are, how they manifest in your child’s body, and how you are choosing to respond to them and to your child . . . both medically and emotionally.)
- 1. Your child will likely feel that he is being denied something of value to him. For example, if he has an allergy to peanuts, he will not be able to eat anything containing peanuts (Snickers, mixed nuts, some meat dishes that used crushed nuts in their “breading”, etc.). Similarly, he will not be able to eat foods that do not contain peanuts but are prepared using surfaces or equipment that come in contact with peanuts (i.e., in the preparation of other foods). The sense of being denied something of value can cause your child to binge on the forbidden foods in a moment when he thinks he will not get caught . . . only to have a trip to the emergency room thereafter. Busted. Ultimately, your child will likely come to accept that he cannot consume the foods to which he is allergic. The best way to quicken your child’s journey to acceptance on this matter is to provide him with frequent information and reinforcement. You and your babysitter should remind your child of his allergies, the health consequences of consuming foods to which he is allergic, and find substitutions that may suffice for him. For example, if he cannot have peanuts, are there other nuts that he likes as well and to which he is not allergic? Also, while he is acclimating to refraining from eating the forbidden foods, you, your babysitter, and the rest of your family should refrain from eating the forbidden foods in his presence . . . or even keeping those foods in your home. They are temptations. Once he has come to acceptance and has mastered self-control over his food selections, you can begin periodic consumption of your son’s forbidden foods. If you forever abstain from eating these foods solely because your son is allergic, your son may develop the perception that everyone in his social network (friends, classmates, etc.) should do so also. That is an unrealistic expectation. Your goal is to gradually teach your child to have the strength to refrain from consuming forbidden foods in an environment where those foods are available and being consumed by others.
- 2. Your child may feel different than/less than/weaker than those of his classmates that do not seem to have any food allergies. His feeling disadvantaged in this way can contribute to self-consciousness or self-imposed social isolation. To address this, you and your baby sitter should be careful about how you communicate with him about food allergies. Many of his feelings on this subject will stem directly from communications from you. If you present this as an issue of health fragility, then that is likely how he will frame the issue as well. By contrast, if you and your babysitter maintain that all bodies have their own likes and dislikes (i.e., allergies) . . . noting, of course, that some bodies dislike more things than others or have a stronger dislike for some things . . . your son will be more likely to see allergies as less differentiating, less isolating. Help your son see that allergies are common and should not be a major distinguishing factor in his social environment. Also, if you and your babysitter can interject humor into the subject, that will also help your son cope.
- 3. Social isolation can exacerbate his sense of disenfranchisement. To address this, you and your babysitter should continue to arrange play dates, parties, and sleep-overs just as you did before you learned of your son’s food allergies. If your son goes to a play date, party, or sleep-over at another child’s home, make sure you communicate with the parents in the other home about your son’s allergies.
- 4. His classmates may begin to see him as different, and some of them may pick on him. This too will exacerbate his perception that he is disadvantaged and disenfranchised. As difficult as this situation is, rest assured that many kids with allergies never deal with this difficulty. If your child does, however, help him cope by comforting him, loving him, and providing him with alternatives. For example, if he can limit his access to the children who pick on him and spend more time associating with children who do not pick on him, that is ideal. You may need to speak with his teacher or the parents of the other children to bring the adverse treatment to an end. Other suggestions include hosting a party, inviting all your child’s classmates (including those who pick on him for his allergies), and helping the children see that there is more to your son than just his allergies; in conjunction with your son and his teacher, putting on a program in front of your son’s class on which you teach nutrition, healthy food preparation, and allergies (here again, the use of humor in this presentation is often helpful to gain acceptance from those children who may otherwise be resistant to your message) (oh, and make sure that, during this presentation, you actually prepare a food of some sort and let the children eat the food at the conclusion of your presentation as snacks frequently win children over); and connecting with other parents and babysitters who attend to children who also have food allergies (you may find these people to be valued resources for information, good sources of support in coping and understanding, and ultimately good friends as well).
Learning that your child has food allergies is never easy, for you or your child, but it can be managed. You and your babysitter can help your child deal with the emotional impact of food allergies.