Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Food Allergies and Anxiety in Kids

Food allergies and anxiety: this can pose a real problem for a child's quality of life. In recent weeks, many of you have posted or e-mailed me about your children having what you felt was extreme food allergy anxiety. As a parent, I can share that our own attitudes about food allergies in our lives will have a big impact on children. Being positive with kids helps, so does teaching them to manage allergies so that they feel more confident. I have more about that here and in my e-book.

Child development. i.e., kids getting older and encountering new stresses, will also play a role in kids' feelings and anxieties. Your pediatrician can discuss normal child development/age appropriate behaviors with you.

However, sometimes it feels that a child is having too much anxiety and it's hindering their enjoyment of childhood and of life. As I'm not a mental health professional, I turned to Jennifer Slack, LCSW of the site Food Allergy Therapist for some input. I asked her to tell me when parents should consider turning to professional counseling/mental health care for a child with food allergies. The following is her detailed response to my question:

Please note: Jennifer is on a parental leave from her practice as of  November, 2014.

Indicators that a child with life threatening Food Allergies

 would benefit from professional support

For children with life threatening food allergies, the anxieties and fears of anaphylaxis are real and valid.  It makes sense that children would develop a heightened sense of awareness of their safety and their mortality when having to think about everything they eat.  This can be even more heightened if a child has experienced an anaphylactic reaction.  They need this awareness in order to survive and stay safe.  But what if this awareness starts to interfere with a child’s happiness, mental well being, and the ability to enjoy social situations, friends, food, family, school etc?  When this starts happening, a child is no longer experiencing the joy of childhood and it might be beneficial to reach out for extra support. The following are examples of indications that a child might benefit from seeing a qualified mental health specialist.


1.       Unreasonable fear of trying new foods, even when they know they are safe

2.       Odd behaviors such as a desire to wear gloves at all times, being afraid to be touched, reading labels excessively or repeatedly asking “safe” person (i.e. mom) if they are SURE the food they are eating is “safe.”

3.       Anxiety and frustration about discussing their food allergies with people. 

4.       Excessive distrust of even safe people (i.e. scared to eat safe foods at home, fear of familiar foods, sticking to only a few foods and refusing to eat anything else)

5.       Expresses feelings of isolation, being left out, having difficulty making friends

6.       Getting embarrassed when needing to ask questions, and refusing to ask, and possibly taking “risks” by guessing

7.       “Forgetting” epinephrine auto-injector on purpose to avoid eating once arriving at a restaurant

8.       Frequently “forgetting” epinephrine due to not wanting to carry it due to embarrassment, inconvenience, etc. (increasing risk, and sometimes occurs with adolescents)

9.       History of being bullied about food allergies

10.   Panic attacks/emotional meltdowns in situations where food might be involved (i.e. going to a restaurant, and out of fear the child has a “meltdown” rather than knowing how to express valid fears so that they can work through them

11.   Child/adolescent has not been learning (for whatever reason) how to manage food allergies and is getting old enough to do so, and doesn’t know how, so experiences anxiety when learning how to self advocate

12.   Other symptoms of anxiety include racing or obsessive thoughts about having an allergic reaction, avoidance, difficulty sleeping, excessive worry and difficulty focusing on other tasks and activities, etc. 

One clarification: It’s a good thing for kids to ask questions and to start verifying the safety of foods. The more kids participate in their own safety, the better. The indicator that it's a problem is when the child is still having intense fear about something bad happening even after all the facts confirm the safety from a trusted source. For example, I have seen kids who are struggling to trust their parents and they will have thoughts like what if somehow a peanut still somehow managed to get into their food even though there is absolutely no evidence that would support this (i.e. no peanuts are even in the house and all ingredients used have been confirmed peanut free).

Thank you to Jennifer for sharing her input and for her dedication to helping those with food allergies!
Please note the following medical disclaimer: This post/site is not intended to treat medical or mental health issues. Please see a qualified doctor, allergist or mental health professional for any or all health problems. Thank you.


HannahsMomma said...

thanks for posting this. I wonder sometimes if my Hannah has some serious anxiety due to her peanut allergy. Especially since she remembers her anaphylaxis vividly. This gives me some guidelines--thanks for another great post!

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I needed this.

Anonymous said...

Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long
comment but after I clicked submit my comment
didn't show up. Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again.
Regardless, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

Feel free to visit my homepage social anxiety