For parents of kids with severe, life threatening food allergies, helping your child become more independent and responsible can have some added challenges.
One of which is that your Middle School aged child frequently has new and deep concerns, fears and questions about food allergies and their medical diagnosis. A lot of them. These questions are different than a few years ago and they are different than they will be a few years from now; but these questions, if they go unanswered or are answered with half answers, can grow into massive, irrational fears.
For example, *if* your Middle School aged child has:
--heard and processed half conversations (or even arguments) between you and your spouse about food allergies or their seriousness or their management;
--picked up pieces from allergist and pediatrician visits but not the full story as they weren’t engaged in the conversation or even really a part of the office visit;
--if they have been told misinformation by a well-meaning school teacher, who has no clue what they are talking about;
--if they have read something online from an untrusted source (the definition of a Doctor Google);
--or perhaps they have done what all kids do: heard one thing and then thought it meant something else because they didn’t have the knowledge or context to process it, they can end up with a lot of myths about food allergies and food allergy risk that they believe are true. And usually they really aren’t.
Your Middle School aged child needs answers to their food allergy fears and questions now in a new and different way. They are able to process complex information in a more dynamic way. So let’s let them get that new information so they can start to identify and separate real food allergy risk from food allergy fear.
Frequently with my Middle School aged food allergy counseling clients, I will ask them to tell me what their fears are and their questions about their food allergies and we write them down together. The general themes I’ve heard concern death, casual contact, how epinephrine works, needles and how to protect themselves.
Let’s jump into the scariest one for everyone who manages food allergy risk: the possibility of death from an accidental exposure to one’s food allergen.
A Middle School aged child understands death in a new and deeply profound way, perhaps even existential. The deaths they may have experienced like the death of a loved one, a beloved pet or even a friend or the parent of a friend has a different effect on their lives as a middle schooler than, say, a pre-schooler. Additionally, it is developmentally appropriate for Middle School aged children to start to ask and experience themselves as a human being in the world; even that there is even a larger world that they need to concern themselves with!
This is an elemental question that Middle School aged children are grappling with and it’s our job to help them grapple.
Of course, as a parent (or a adult loved one), it can be deeply upsetting, difficult and heartbreaking to hear a child talk about their fears about death.
But parents, I urge you to first examine * your * thoughts, fears and understanding of food allergy risk. Children, as you know, are little sponges watching and listening to everything you do and they will mirror your feelings, whether you have expressed them directly or indirectly. If you believe deeply that your little one will grow into a self-sufficient adult with food allergies, they most likely will. If you have deep worries, fears about risk and allergens and managing them (and/or a history of anxiety), and believe there is danger and risk around every corner, your child cannot help but pick up this attitude, too, and mirror your worries and fears.
Parents, maybe you still have questions about food allergy risk, diagnosis, definition or your anaphylaxis action plan? Get medical clarity, work with a therapist, talk to your partner about your concerns so you can help your child navigate this next developmental phase which is the beginning of how to be in the world and of the world (my favorite quote from the movie Sabrina.)
By the Middle School years, it is time for honest age-appropriate talk about real food allergy risk versus food allergy fear. And, as a family, this needs to happen together, ideally.
Allow your child the space to express their fears about food allergies in words, drawing and in play.
Have them write down their questions about food allergies or help form their fears into actionable questions.
The next step is to take those questions to your trusted local allergist to get real answers which will help them learn how identify and separate real food allergy risk from food allergy fear.
My next post will cover this topic.
Here are parts one, three and four of this blog series on middle school aged children and anxiety around food allergies.
Here's an excellent post about anxiety, generally speaking, in children, by Karen Young.
NB: When fears are not managed, children can suffer or withdraw. If you witness troubling behaviors in your child, please have them evaluated by a local child psychologist, social worker or psychiatrist as well as your allergist and your pediatrician.