For an allergy parent, sometimes it can be hard to know exactly what to say to your child when they can’t eat the food that’s in front of them. It can also be hard to know how to prepare them for situations when they have to experience that alone.
“Any time children eat outside of parental control, it can be anxiety-triggering,” says asthma and allergy specialist Dr. Noga Askenazi. “There is an increase in anxiety disorders in children who have food allergies, and we need to make a conscious effort to alleviate that.”
Such was the case for my 9-year-old son, Ben, when he went to a party recently. He has several serious food allergies, and while the host was kind enough to provide some allergy-friendly pizza he could eat, it was hard for him to be surrounded by other kids who were all eating something else.
Usually he handles these situations well, but this time upset him. When he got home from the party, he told me how sad he was and how he hated having allergies.
“I know it stinks, but you have so much to be thankful for,” I told him. “You are smart and kind, you have lots of friends, a roof over your head, two legs…” I went on and on.
My son interrupted me and said, “Mom, I know. But it’s okay for me to be upset that I have allergies. I’m just a kid. Let me be sad.”
His response stopped me in my tracks. I realized that I had done a good job keeping him safe from allergens and teaching him how to keep himself safe. But in so doing, I had put the emotional and psychological aspects of having allergies on the backburner.
So how should I have handled the situation? I reached out to a few experts to hear their insights.
1. Let them feel
By focusing on what I believed were the positives in my son’s life, I unintentionally pushed aside his feelings.
“Helping your child to be able to connect with whatever he is feeling and then allowing him to express it constructively is the whole point of raising an emotionally healthy child,” says Maureen Healy, PhD, child development expert and author of “Growing Happy Kids.” She explains that allowing children to feel their feelings isn’t encouraging self-pity. “None of their feelings are good or bad. They are just tied to what’s happening.”
She adds that people can be grateful and unhappy at the same time. Healy uses the example of being stuck in traffic: You are grateful for having a car and the ability to get where you need to go, but not happy about the traffic.
“Children can feel bad that they went to a party and couldn’t eat all the food because that is a bummer,” she says. “Always allow your child to feel their feelings, whether it is about allergies or stubbing their toe.”
2. Show empathy
When your child expresses an emotion about having allergies, Askenazi recommends acknowledging their emotions about the allergies the same way you would acknowledge any person’s medical condition.
“You might say something like, ‘I’m really sorry that you had to think about your food allergies at the party and that having allergies makes you sad. I am sad for you too,’” she suggests.
When I take this approach with Ben, it tends to calm him. However, sometimes he thinks I just don’t understand because I don’t have allergies. In those situations, reminding him to think beyond himself can help.
3. Give them a sense of perspective
When a child is confronted with not being able to eat something, Healy says it’s important to get them to focus on the foods they can eat.
“They tend to stay focused on, say, the cookie they can’t eat,” she says. “But if a child is frustrated, if he can find gratitude or something he can appreciate… then it will shift his perspective from what he can’t have to feeling grateful for what he can have.”
Askenazi also recommends explaining the fact that your child is not the only child with food challenges.
“Letting them know that there are children who have allergies to other foods they can eat, or who avoid certain foods for religious reasons, can give them some perspective,” she says. Telling them about kids who live with diabetes can be eye-opening too.
“The point is to say, ‘I know it’s tough, but you’re not alone in having to think about the foods you eat. Other children have to, too.’”
4. Encourage their inner yogi
Explaining to your child that they are more than their physical body can have a positive impact. Encourage them to think of themselves as being composed of a body, a mind, and a spirit, and to realize that their body is the only part of them with an allergy.
Healy suggests encouraging them to repeat this mantra: “My body has an allergy, and to take good care of my body, I have to not give it what it’s allergic to.”
“While this may sound strange, the more you identify with an illness, the more energy you give it, and the more it becomes part of who you are,” she explains. “This approach takes a little bit of the power out of the allergy.”
I tried this approach with my son, and he seemed to understand it at first, but then began asking a lot of questions that confused him. I suggest trying this technique with older kids and teenagers.
5. Empower them with knowledge
While it’s crucial that younger children understand that allergens can harm them, Askenazi believes stressing that they protect themselves is a better approach than instilling a sense of fear.
“I try to stress a medical condition fear, rather than fear of death,” she says. “Saying ‘you could die if you eat that’ is much different than saying ‘you could really harm your body and end up in the emergency room,’ which still gets the point across.”
For adolescents and teenagers, the more information the better.
“They can learn what happens during an allergic reaction, how to recognize it, and how to defuse it right away,” Askenazi explains. In addition to getting information from your kid’s allergist, she says reputable YouTube videos, books, and information from organizations like FARE are great resources.
6. Cook with them
Healy also suggests encouraging kids to help out in the kitchen, particularly once they’re in grade school. Not only will they have a head start when they have to start cooking for themselves, but they’ll also have a better grasp of what they can and can’t eat. They will be better aware of substitutions they can make, as well.
“Learning how to cook recipes they can eat can reduce feeling helpless and make them feel empowered about taking control of their condition,” Healy says.
7. Help them learn how to discuss their allergies
Teaching children the language they need to explain their allergy to other children and adults is another way to empower them.
“First, parents need to make sure they understand what the allergen will do to the child. Then, give them the right words to explain that,” says Askenazi. “For instance, if peanuts will cause anaphylaxis, teach your child to say ‘Peanuts will cause my throat to get tight’ or ‘Peanuts will affect my breathing.’”
Ben’s teachers and friends’ parents often tell me how well he communicates his allergies to them. I think this helps him in school and social settings.
We all struggle with how best to prepare our children for the world out there. Those struggles are intensified when they have allergies and you want to make sure they can protect themselves. It’s important to realize that the challenges of having allergies aren’t just physical, but emotional too.