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Do Food Allergies Make Kids Helpless?

If you were to encounter me at, say, the playground, you would probably walk away thinking I’m fairly mellow. You might even think I’m a little too mellow as you watch my daughter hang upside down from the highest bar she can possibly find, whether or not the bar actually belongs to the official climbing structure. You would probably walk away thinking I take the risk-taking thing a little too far.

If you were to meet me anywhere near any kind of group event with food, on the other hand, you would quickly identify me with one overused term: helicopter mother. You might whisper that I’m overly concerned about germs or organic food (which might actually be a little bit true some days). You might think I’m too strict or too anxious or simply hovering too much.

I’m not. Both of my kids have potentially fatal food allergies. One has a mile-long list of offending ingredients, the other has a shorter list but has had more significant allergic reactions. While hanging upside down on the monkey bars might be the thing that worries you the most (no one wants a broken arm, after all), food is my biggest nightmare. School parties? Nightmare. Birthday parties? Nightmare. Holiday parties? Complete and utter nightmare.

When food is the enemy, you never feel safe. Every single day is a leap of faith. Every day my kids encounter their allergies in nearby lunch boxes, and it’s up to them to speak up and move. Every day they have to take control of their allergies and make choices in their own best interest, even if that means avoiding their closest friends at lunch.

So yes, I strap on my helicopter blade and hover when I need to, because I’m the only one who will.

But I let them take risks and solve all kinds of other problems, and I am teaching them to assert their needs and take control of their allergies. They can’t eat certain foods, and they can’t even be near some foods, but they don’t have to fear food and feel helpless because of their allergies.

A new study out of the University of Maryland in Baltimore suggests that preschoolers with food allergies suffer from learned helplessness. It seems that the high level of parental involvement, when it comes to food allergies, can bleed into other areas of the child’s life, and that can contribute to the child feeling helpless when obstacles arise.

The study recruited 66 preschoolers with food allergies and 67 preschoolers without food allergies. Researchers asked the children to work on two puzzles, an easy, age-appropriate puzzle and a more difficult puzzle meant for older children. Parents were coached to provide help only when asked. Of the two groups, 39 percent of the food allergy kids made requests for help or complained about the level of difficulty. Only 14 percent of the non-food allergy kids did the same.

As a parent of two children with food allergies, I know how hard it is to give them their wings and let them fly. What if they fly into a trap? What if they make a mistake? What if the peer pressure is too much to bear? But as a child therapist, I know that kids need independence.

Helplessness leads to low self-esteem, anxiety and even depression. It’s difficult to assert your needs and solve problems when you feel overwhelmed with helplessness. The truth is that your child will encounter unsafe foods at some point. It’s important to empower your kids so that they know what to do and how to react when they encounter their allergens on their own.

Be honest

Sometimes parents downplay the potential allergic reactions because they don’t want to scare their kids. Kids need to know the truth about their food allergies. There are age-appropriate ways to teach kids about their allergies. Will they feel scared? Probably. But talking about the allergens, and empowering your kids to learn what to avoid and how to ask for help or alternatives, will reduce their fears.

“If you eat tree nuts your throat will feel itchy and like it’s getting smaller, and it will be hard for you to breathe,” isn’t an easy to statement to make over and over again. But I do it. My kids understand that even foods with potential cross allergens are forbidden, because we just can’t take the chance.

Knowing what they’re up against helps them make good decisions. Last year, my daughter learned to assert her needs in the cafeteria. She also learned to ask her teacher to help her read labels.

Practice speaking up

My six-year-old son has no problem yelling out his allergies, but at seven, my daughter prefers to keep a lower profile. She doesn’t like being the center of attention, and she doesn’t like discussing her allergies to death with a group of kids.

We role-play potential scenarios ("Your friend sits down next to you with a bowl of cashews, what do you say?") and talk about what it feels like in those moments.

The more they practice and process, the more empowered they feel.

Put them in charge of the kitchen

You know what feels good when you are constantly under surveillance for your eating habits? Having the freedom to make your own food.

My daughter is allergic to chocolate. Yes, you read that right. Talk about an elementary school nightmare. Combine that with the tree nuts and a few others, and it sometimes feels like all of the good stuff is off limits. So we improvise.

We choose recipes that look amazing, swap out the bad stuff for good and bake together. We choose new dinner options together. She chops vegetables, stirs the soup and seasons everything. She plans her own lunches and snacks for school.

Giving kids some control over their eating lessens the fear and stigma of food allergies. They take pride in what they make and learn to talk about their cooking skills with confidence.

Food allergies are scary for parents and a huge bummer for kids, but they don’t have to be a source of helplessness. Even your young kids can circumvent the helplessness if parents take steps toward food empowerment.

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