AnxietyChildrenFawn McNeil-HaberFood allergiesUncategorized

Food Allergies and Anxiety (Part 2 of 4): Helping Young Children

Little girl and half of a cupcake.

In the first part of our series, we discussed what anxiety related to food allergies may look like.   This time, we look at the unique ways elementary school children show anxiety and how to help.

Signs of anxiety in young children

  • Repeated reports of headaches, stomachaches and other physical pains
  • Clinginess including unwillingness to separate from mom or dad at schools, parties, and playdates
  • Inflexibility and difficulty transitioning from one activity to another
  • Irritability and tantrums
  • Nightmares and difficulty sleeping
  • Avoiding food or needing to be constantly reassured that the food is safe

There are many things we can do to help young children understand food allergies and manage anxiety and stress.


Make your child feel normal

Younger children are very attuned to your emotional reaction.  It is important that food allergies both be treated as a normal part of your family as well as something special that must be taken very seriously.  

  • Remember, all families have struggles to manage.  Everyone’s challenges are different. Providing real life examples can be particularly helpful to give children perspective.  This is best done as part of a general discussion, not when you child is upset about a food allergy related obstacle.
  • Many families have to live with food allergies.  Create community.  Cultivate a relationship with another food allergy family.  Go to a food allergy walk.  Buy a food allergy CD – Food Allergies Rock is my favorite.  Show your child that they are not alone.  


Be Mindful of Siblings

Anxieties and hurt feelings can be created when siblings feel that they have to alter their life for their sibling, especially if they don’t fully understand why.  Furthermore, being the sibling of a child with food allergies is inherently hard and stressful. In addition, siblings worry.  It is important to make siblings an ally in creating safety by educating them.  Additionally, be sure that you are providing the sibling with special attention and time away from dealing with food allergies.  Make sure you are not expecting too much of siblings regarding how they have to deal with food allergies in the family.

Book Recommendation: Bugybops


Talk Openly

There are many ways that having a food allergy can create anxiety for your child. Don’t assume you know why they are feeling apprehensive or anxious.  Are they worried about accidentally eating something and having a reaction? Are they worried about what other kids will think when they are at the allergy table?  Could they be scared of the epi pen?  Do they worry that non-parent caregivers won’t know how to take care of them?  Are they scared to say no when someone offers them food?  Keep the conversation going so you understand their particular fears.


Educate, empower and educate some more

Teach your child their allergens or it might feel like all foods are scary.  Read ingredient lists together.  Create rules for knowing what foods are safe and what people are safe to feed them.  Discuss what a reaction is and who to tell.  Talk to them about the Epi Pen and show them that you carry it.  Understanding their food allergies provides a sense of control which can help keep anxieties at bay.


Practice mindfulness and relaxation

Helping children manage stress also involves helping them understand how to calm their body.  Teaching your child how to take deep slow calming breaths during quiet times can help prepare them to take slow breaths when they are stressed.  In addition, we can help children understand the signals their body gives them when they are feeling stressed including their tummy in knots, wanting to snap at others, or hiding.  Focusing on the present moment, learning yoga, and visualizing a safe space can help calm their system.


Don’t tell them not to worry and that it will be ok

This may seem counterintuitive but reassurances tend to be counterproductive.  There is something to worry about, food is everywhere!  Furthermore they are concerned that it won’t be ok.  Rather than deny their feelings, hear out their fears and make a plan for how to deal with them.


Develop Problem Solving skills

Help young children take STEPs to solve the problem.  Teach them to

  • Say the problem – Children have to be able to identify the difficulty they are having.
  • Think of solutions – Let them brainstorm.  No solution is too silly.
  • Explore consequences – Here is where you talk about the pros and cons of each solution.
  • Pick a solution – Finally you pick the solutions that seems the best, evaluate the outcome and repeat the process as necessary.

Going through the problem solving process can give children a sense of control of their surroundings and their ability to impact their environment.   You can also use problem solving strategies to work out your plans ahead of time with other caregivers and the school so that problems can be avoided or handled in a planned out manner.


Food Avoidance

Some children manage their food allergies by avoiding food, even foods they are not allergic to.  Obviously, with a reduced variety of available food you don’t want child to decrease their options unnecessarily.  You also don’t want them scared of any situation where they encounter food.  There are several techniques that can help:

  • Consider your reaction to foods and food situations.  Are you inadvertently communicating to you child that you are scared, anxious or nervous?  They will follow your lead.  Make your plan for handling food and food situations and follow it confidently.
  • Practice relaxations skills like deep breathing, a guided body scan, or yoga
  • Educate and challenge excessive worry.  These are thoughts that can undermine the child’s ability to bravely and confidently execute the solutions to the problems they are worried about.  Challenge does not mean disregard or dismiss but rather looking at them closely together and considering if they are really true or helpful.
  • Face fears.  Make a plan from easiest to the hardest situations to conquer.
  • Professional help may be needed if the food avoidance has crossed into a food phobia.


Let them be in control (when they can)

food allergies and anxietyMany times anxiety feels like you are not in control.  Give your child opportunities to have control and calm concerns.   Maybe your child can’t have the same thing as everyone else at the birthday party but they can be in control of what they do get  “Will you be taking a dairy-free donut or a dairy-free cupcake?  Should I use yellow icing, red icing, or make the cupcake look like pikachu?”  

Anxiety is a normal part of life.  Children with food allergies may experience an additional layer of anxiety due to the ever present nature of food.  Be sure to educate your child and their siblings on safety without letting it define their lives. Allow your child to have open and honest conversations with you about their allergy. By educating your child on their allergy and how to control it, it is less likely to cause fear and anxiety. You can also try employing different techniques to calm your child’s mind, such as mediation and yoga. Let your child know that everything will be okay, because whatever problems do arise, you will handle them together. Communication and education are key to dealing with your child’s food allergy in a healthy and effective way.


Check out the whole Food Allergies and Anxiety series:

Part 1: What does anxiety look like?

Part 3: Helping Teens

Part 4: 8 Tips to Become a Less Stressed Food Allergy Parent


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Brave Minds Psychological Services helps children, teens and families overcome severe anxiety, stress, and painful experiences.  We specialize in developing brave minded youth that can move forward despite fears and significant challenges.