Our team recently attended the Food Allergy Fund Virtual Summit, which drew an impressive list of participants, including our Allergy Amulet partner celebrity chef Ming Tsai!
As we listened in, one panel caught our particular attention: the psycho-social impact of food allergies. We have covered a LOT of topics on the Allergy Amulet blog but somehow overlooked this one. Today we’re fixing that. 😁
The discussion was moderated by Gina Clowes, a food allergy coach and consultant and the founder of AllergyMoms. She was joined by Dr. Eyal Shemesh, a trained pediatrician, psychiatrist, and practitioner at Mount Sinai Medical Center, and Dr. Jennifer LeBovidge, a psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in the immunology division, and psychology professor at Harvard Medical School.
One of the important discussion topics was how food allergies can impact a child’s social development, so let’s start there.
Kids often experience bullying in adolescence for things that make them different. Children with food allergies nowadays often eat at designated allergy-friendly tables and are frequently singled out during food-related activities because of their dietary restrictions.
Dr. Shemesh conducted a survey among pediatric food allergy patients and their parents to better understand the role bullying plays for food allergy kids. Of the 251 families surveyed, 31.5% of children reported being bullied because of their food allergies. Dr. Shemesh noted during the panel that many parents are often unaware of the bullying.
Both panelists noted that in each of their practices, the more knowledgeable a child is about food allergies, the less likely they are to bully, and the more likely they are to advocate for their food-allergic friend.
For the food allergy community, the number of scenarios that could pose potential health risks fluctuates daily. Each encounter with food requires planning and preparation, which can significantly impact a child’s social life. Negative experiences children have had in the past due to their food allergies—or the possibility of future food-related issues—can also lead to anxiety around food.
According to Dr. LeBovidge, food-related anxiety or uncertainty can also lead to social avoidance (e.g., avoiding social gatherings, activities, etc.). She stressed that there’s a difference between adaptive caution and avoidance. The former helps a child engage safely with the outside world, whereas the latter can lead children to unnecessarily disengage socially.
Dr. Shemesh shared a great kid-friendly analogy: when you play baseball and the pitcher throws the ball, do you run away? No. Sometimes, you need to step in and swing (in a manner of speaking). 😉
Fear of the unknown
We’ve written previously about the role fear can play in managing food allergies. Food allergies are already a source of anxiety for many kids and parents, so what happens when you throw a global pandemic into the mix?
Already, we’re seeing the trickle-down effect that it’s had on the food industry, such as the FDA relaxing food labeling requirements. If you’re playing catchup, the FDA recently issued new guidance on food labeling during the pandemic that makes it possible for manufacturers to substitute ingredients without changing the label if they have trouble sourcing an ingredient. In other words, what you thought was safe may not necessarily be safe in the foreseeable future. 😫
When asked how he believed COVID would impact his food-allergic patients, Dr. Shemesh responded optimistically: “I think most of our patients are resilient. And I think that they should be able to weather the pandemic in terms of the mental health issues as well as anybody else or maybe even better…presumably, at least some have created coping mechanisms that actually can come in handy when [you add] this kind of stressor.”
Indeed, food-allergic families are accustomed to managing a chronic health issue and avoiding invisible threats. For example, food-allergic children are used to washing their hands more frequently and sharing foods less often with others.
How does parental anxiety impact kids?
Last year, we covered a survey that in part examined the emotional burden of food allergies on parents. That survey found that the mental and emotional impact of food allergies is greater on parents/caregivers than it is on the child with food allergies. Moreover, surveyed parents reported skipping events such as birthday parties, dining out, travel, entertainment activities, and even school functions because of their child’s food allergies.
So what can parents do to better help their food-allergic kids?
According to Dr. LeBovidge, “Parents are really setting the tone here, and when their words and behaviors give the message that they’re confident, kids are going to feel more confident too.” She adds that you can also remind kids that “a lot of what they are already doing… is going to continue to keep them safe.”
In my experience as a food allergy parent, it’s normal to have some anxious feelings (if I’m being honest, I’ve experienced a LOT of anxiety, especially early on!). It’s helpful to listen to your child and let them know you’re there, and that you can get through anything together.
I’ve found that it helps not only to normalize anxiety but also to see how fear and food allergies can become a source of strength. In the case of my daughter, I try to treat her food allergies as an opportunity to empower her to use her voice and advocate for herself. Because food allergies don’t need to be a source of stigma and stress—they can be a source of strength.
– Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team