For a parent, living in the world of food allergies is like living in an alternate reality. While everyone else is going about their lives, you’re worried about your child’s safety from, of all things, food.   It’s YOUR responsibility to get family members, teachers, coaches, and others on the same page about the risks of food allergies. Furthermore, if your child struggles with fears, socializing, or the challenges school brings, the burden can be anxiety-provoking and overwhelming.  

The good news is that it is possible to manage food allergies, while you and your child still live life to the fullest. 

Anxiety is Our Friend

Yes, anxiety IS your friend and mine! Anxiety keeps us safe. It can drive us to learn more, teach others, and stick with the ways that keep us (and our children) protected. Anxiety can be anything from worried thoughts to that pit in our stomach that tells us something isn’t right.  As food allergy parents, it helps keep us on alert to scan and anticipate danger.  For children, it can remind them that they must always check labels and ask questions. However, it is important to keep the stress and anxiety manageable. 

Anxiety Can Get Out of Hand

While anxiety can be helpful, it becomes unhealthy if it kicks into overdrive. Some of the signs that food allergy anxiety has taken over include:

  • Difficulty sleeping due to worries or physical discomfort
  • Constant imagining of the worst-case scenario
  • For kids, constant questioning about food and safety (sometimes adults, too)
  • Anger and agitation over little things
  • Avoidance of previously managed situations (e.g. foods, activities, etc.)
  • Excessive crying
  • Intrusive thoughts of past reactions or future exposures
  • Panic attacks

Keeping a balance between anxiety that drives planning and preparation and anxiety that interferes with your ability to enjoy life is imperative.  You CAN learn to keep this balance and show your child how to rock this food allergy journey.  

Tips for Young Kids

Anxiety in children with food allergies is common. Some signs that your child might be anxious include complaining of headaches, stomach aches, and other physical pains. They might cling to you at social gatherings and school or need frequent reassurance that their food is safe. To help your child, there are a few significant things you can do. 

First, it is important for your child to feel normal. Remember, every family has their own challenges. Giving your child real life examples of other challenges families face can be helpful to put things into perspective for your child. Applaud and encourage their strength in meeting ALL challenges.

Second, educate and empower your child.  Many times anxiety can stem from a lack of control.  Teach your child their allergens, label reading, and who they can trust to give them food.  Discuss what a reaction looks like, who to tell, and the role of epinephrine.

Third, DON’T tell them not to worry.  Reassurances can be counterproductive.  Teach them how to worry, i.e., how to talk it out with you.  Explore their concerns.  Problem solve with them.  Put the worry away.  Finally, practice relaxation and self-calming.

Fourth, help them develop their problem-solving skills. The STEPs to solve a problem include: 

Say the problem. Think of solutions. Explore the consequences. Pick a solution. 

Lastly, let them be in control when they can. Living with food allergies often can make you feel as though you are not in control. Allowing your child to make their own choices and calm their own concerns is important.

Tips for Teens

The teenage years are full of changes that create additional stress for your child. Worries about food allergies can add an extra layer of anxiety for your teen. Indeed, at what point do you tell your crush all about your food allergies … including that your first kiss can’t be laced with almonds?  To help your teen with food allergies and anxiety, there are a few key things to keep in mind. 

First, be aware of the signs that your teen is feeling anxious. These could indicate a larger problem. Common symptoms include trouble sleeping, irritability, avoidance, unexplained aches and pains, panic attacks, and more. If this is the case, be sure to have an open discussion with your teen about this. 

Second, create a space for your teen to speak openly about their concerns. Be careful not to jump in with your own judgements and criticisms.  It is important to not dismiss your teen’s emotions but instead try to understand and address them. Dating, bullying, underage drinking and college are all areas where teens with food allergies may hit obstacles.

Lastly, educate your teen. At this point in their lives, they are probably familiar with their food allergy plan. Help your teen understand what the signs of anxiety might look like in their bodies. Because panic attacks may mimic the same symptoms as an allergic reaction, it is important for your teen to have a strategy to determine the difference. Without proper education on panic attacks and anxiety, your teen may mistake a panic attack for an allergic reaction. 

Tips for Parents

Managing severe food allergies can be consuming. The stress will ebb and flow with the context of your life and the developmental stage of your child.  It is also influenced by your own proclivity to anxiety and previous life circumstances. However, if you feel as though you are overwhelmed with anxiety related to food allergies, there are a few important things you can do to reduce these worries. 

First, increase your awareness. Take note of the Bodily sensations, Emotions, Actions, and Thoughts you are experiencing; this is your life BEAT.  Checking in with these four areas can help you stay attuned to when you need extra support before it gets out of hand.  You will learn your anxiety triggers and take better can of yourself when they happen.

Second, create a support system. Finding your food allergy tribe is key to feeling supported. This can be family, friends, other food allergy families, online support groups, etc.

Third, enjoy the world that is not ruled by food allergies. Allowing yourself to take a break from the food allergy world is vital to your well-being and care for your child. This might include a separate outing to get your favorite ice-cream with a non-food allergic sibling.  Doing things you enjoy can be refreshing and refueling so that you can handle the stressors of the food allergy world more effectively. 

Lastly, speak up. Being nervous about speaking up regarding your child’s food allergies is normal. However, it is important to practice your assertiveness. The more you speak up for your child’s needs, the more in control you will start to feel. 

While living with food allergies can feel scary and isolating, it does not have to be. With the right resources, skills, and guidance you can cope with food allergy related stress and live a more fulfilled life.  

Fawn McNeil- Haber, Ph.D.

Fawn McNeil- Haber, Ph.D.

Fawn McNeil-Haber, PhD is the owner and Clinical Director of Brave Minds Psychological Services located in Scotch Plains, NJ. With over 20 years of experience in the field of mental health, Dr. Fawn specializes in treating trauma, coaching parents, and anxiety related to food allergies. As a food allergy parent herself, Dr. Fawn is familiar with working through the stress and anxiety that comes with food allergies.