Mental Health

7 Tips for Reducing Food Allergy Anxiety in Children

Any parent with a child with food allergies knows all too well the anxiety produced by living with allergies. Anxiety is incredibly common in families like ours.

As parents, we’ve developed our own coping mechanisms, but how do we first recognize the signs of anxiety in our children and help them develop the skills to overcome it?

Confident, well-informed parents make safer, happier and healthier kids, so the tips below are designed to give you the tools to calm your own anxiety and to support your children.

These tips come from a recent Backstop webinar featuring the head of Backstop’s Care Team, Dr. Julie Sweeney, MD, FAAP and Dr. Fawn McNeil-Haber, PhD. In addition to their professional expertise, Dr. Sweeney and McNeil-Haber are both parents of children with food allergies. Watch the entire webinar. 

Tip 1: Recognize the signs of anxiety in your children

The first step in helping your child cope with anxiety about their food allergies is to recognize the number of ways it shows up in their lives. 

This survey developed at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania is a questionnaire intended for use by parents of children and adolescents to assess food allergy-related anxiety and anxious avoidance behaviors. 

If you’re noticing these behaviors in your child, you may want to start by talking to them more often about their feelings about their allergies.

Find out more about talk to an expert about signs of anxiety in your child. Book an expert session.

Tip 2: Watch your own anxiety

It is completely normal and natural for parents whose children have severe food allergies to be anxious about their child’s health and safety. We are used to living in a state of high alert and constant vigilance to keep our kids safe.

As adults, we can usually recognize the difference between healthy anxiety – the voice in our head that helps us prepare for a big test, and stay away from dangerous situations – and unhealthy anxiety, the stomach churning, scary feeling that sometimes follows us even when a situation is safe. That unhealthy anxiety isn’t serving us or our children.

Our children are always watching us. Young children look to parents to determine what their reaction should be when they skin their knee or face any potential danger. If you are clearly scared, they likely will be as well. Anxiety is contagious. 

We can undermine a child’s empowerment and reduce their sense of safety by giving in to our own unhealthy anxiety and doing things like constantly questioning and creating confusion in situations that are relatively safe. 

When you recognize that you are in a state of unhealthy anxiety, there are tools you can use to assuage it. Deep breathing and physically grounding yourself helps. So does reality testing. Talking to a trusted friend or other adult can help.

If your anxiety becomes too difficult to manage on your own, counseling or other professional resources can help. 

Asking for help and teaching others in your life to help with your anxiety is a sign of strength. 

Want to explore how to get your food allergy anxiety under control? Book an expert session.

Tip 3: Communicate effectively with your child

Your child is looking to you to set the tone about living with severe allergies. We want to encourage kids to be empowered, brave and courageous in all areas of their lives.

Communicate with your children about allergies the same way you talk with other things in their lives. Be firm and matter of fact, and manage your own anxiety, as opposed to being overly agitated about what might happen.

As you are talking with them, focus on being strengths-based and creating celebratory narratives. Celebrate their wins. When they go have medical tests or have blood drawn, even if they didn’t act or feel brave in the moment, celebrate that they did it, what they accomplished and how they are caring for themselves. When they try a new food, congratulate them and imagine with them what they might want to try next. We always want to be building up their confidence and celebrating what they’ve achieved. 

Also, be intentional about how you respond when your worry is triggered. Consider your verbal and nonverbal communication.

What is your facial response? Is your voice calm? Does your demeanor change?  Despite any worries, it is important to appear to be in control of your emotions. Just as anxiety is contagious, your child is likely to often mimic your bravery and confidence.

You don’t have to have a “game face” on all the time though, because that’s not healthy either. Just make sure that if you need to vent or express doubt, you do so with an adult, like a close friend, or your partner - not your child.

Get more tips and tricks about good food allergy communication by talking with an expert.

Book an expert session

Tips 4: Plan and communicate with other adults to keep your child safe 

Being planful is key to creating a safe environment and keeping anxiety at bay. Including kids in planning when it is appropriate gives them a sense of control and safety – whether that’s how you’ll navigate going to a new school or camp, the grocery store or anywhere else.

Need to create a plan for school or camp? Book an expert session.

We can communicate with teachers, principals, camp leaders and other parents clearly about what our children need to be safe. It is important to communicate before an event or a party about what is helpful in managing the allergy with adults in their life, and to usually have those conversations without our child being present. This way, things can go smoothly when the child is at the event or out of your care and is asserting themselves about their needs. Nothing builds up a child’s confidence like having a “win” in keeping themselves safe when they are on their own.

This pattern of communication may shift as our children grow older and become teenagers. With young children, we do most of the planning and navigating so they can be courageous, and as they age into teenagers and young adults, we pass more and more of that responsibility on to them. 

Tip 5: Navigate the supermarket more easily

It’s important for kids to feel safe encountering all kinds of foods, including the ones that give them allergic reactions. It is empowering for them to be able to see the food in the grocery story and walk past it and know that they are going to be okay. If the allergy is airborne, then seeing pictures of the food is clearly a safer choice. 

In the supermarket, you can even have your child address the food and talk to it. And make it fun! Don’t let your own fear or your child’s anxiety drive your decisions. Let safety be your guide instead.

And if walking past the food or talking to it is too big a step for a child, then think about how you can break these everyday tasks up into smaller steps that your child can successfully experience, one at a time. Even going into the grocery store but skipping the aisles with your child’s allergens is something to celebrate. Maybe next time, they’ll be ready to take the next step. 

Tip 6: Make grounded choices at restaurants

We often have to choose whether eating out, or only going to a specific restaurant, is a safe choice for our family. When making decisions about how and where to eat, ask yourself: Am I making this decision out of an  anxious place? Does this choice follow my child’s pediatrician or allergist recommendation? How does my reasoning shift to when my child is a tween or teenager and they want to start doing things with their friends? 

Some ways to manage anxiety if you do choose to eat out or are trying a new place are to:

  • Call ahead to figure out what your child might order and to determine if the restaurant seems to be willing to work with you to be safe.
  • Create small steps to help your child be less anxious. Perhaps begin by taking them to restaurants, but having them bring their own food, so they can be there and see how you talk to servers about food allergies. Then celebrate each of your child’s small steps!
  • Take a food allergy card with you that your child can share with the servers and food preparers so they know what your child is allergic to, how severe the allergy is and how they need to prepare food and clean surfaces and utensils to keep your child safe. 

Tip 7: Make friends with your epinephrine auto injector

Let’s be real. None of us really ever wants to think about a scenario where we have to use epinephrine with our children. But, that scary thought shouldn’t control us and stop us from being ready should that situation arise.

A recent study found that almost one-third of caregivers did not give their child epinephrine in an emergency because they were scared or nervous.  That parental anxiety has real dangers because it means a lot of kids don’t get the medicine they need in an emergency.

 In a “fight-or-flight” situation, the parts of your brain that think critically don’t function well. The antidote to this fear-based paralysis is practice. Just like in a fire drill, you practice before the emergency. 

To help, epinephrine trainers are really helpful to take out some of the fear and worry. You can find a free video series by pediatrician Dr. Shelly Flais  on preparing for food allergy emergencies on Backstop’s website. Select Allergy Safety Skills to check out these essential Baseline Training videos.

Watching these videos, preparing – and, when age appropriate, preparing with your child – can reduce your fear and anxiety, and theirs. By being prepared, you can save a life in an emergency.

I hope you’ve found these tips helpful. 

Backstop is a one-stop-shop virtual care solution and app for parents with children who have food allergies.

We believe that confident, well-informed parents make safer kids, and we have blogs, webinars and a whole online community to help you feel like you have backup. Please join us at backstopallergy.com to find out more about how you can make a plan for your family.

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