Emotional Health for Parents of Children with Food Allergies

Herbert_Linda_02102013_12smBy: Linda Herbert, clinical psychologist in the Department of Allergy and Immunology at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

If you’re reading this newsletter, you probably already know that parenting a child with a food allergy can be stressful! Daily management is time-intensive and you may experience a mix of emotions, such as sadness, worry, confusion, uncertainty, frustration, anger and anxiety.

The first thing to remember is that these are all very normal reactions to food allergies and you are not the only parent to experience them! Research shows that parents of children with food allergy sometimes experience elevated stress, anxiety and worry, and sometimes report lower quality of life as a result of food allergies.

It’s also normal to go through periods of time when you experience these emotions in different amounts. For example, transitions to new schools or new play groups, developmental changes - such as increased adolescent independence - and reading about a scary food allergy-related event in the news can be particularly stressful. But you may also have times when you feel okay. This is also normal!

The second thing to remember is that learning and practicing ways to improve your ability to cope with stressful food-allergy related situations will not only help reduce your stress and anxiety, but your child’s too! Modeling positive coping strategies will have a positive impact on your family. Below are a
few strategies to bear in mind:

1. Use deep breathing throughout the day to calm yourself during stressful situations. You can do this any time and any place because it’s just breathing! Some parents find it helpful to do this every morning before starting their day and every evening before bed.

How to do this: Make yourself aware of your body. Check for tension; begin with your feet and move upward to your head, allowing a comfortable wave of relaxation to wash away any tension. Pay attention to your breath as it enters and leaves your body. Take a deep breath. Inhale slowly through your nose. Notice your lungs and abdomen expanding. Hold it for a moment, then exhale even more slowly through your mouth, letting your body relax. Repeat this process for 2-3 minutes until you feel the tension leaving your body.

2. Use problem solving techniques to manage situations that you can control. Learning ways to improve your problem solving ability will help you solve your problems instead of worrying about them.

How to do this: Use a problem solving technique to anticipate and address situations early. First, IDENTIFY all aspects the problem. Second, DEFINE each aspect of the problem, including the perspectives and goals for everyone involved. Third, EXPLORE all possible solutions—even ones you don’t think will work! Fourth, ACT on the solution. And fifth, LOOK BACK and reflect on the results. Try another solution if needed.

3. Acknowledge that sometimes you can’t change the situation, but you CAN change how you react to it. We all respond to situations with automatic thoughts, behaviors, and consequences. When we’re stressed, most of these thoughts are negative. Changing negative thoughts into positive thoughts will reduce your stress and improve the situation.

How to do this: Identify negative thoughts, such as, “I can’t control my child’s food allergies,” and change them to positive thoughts, such as, “I know how to explain food allergies to my child’s teacher and other parents. I’m a good parent and food allergy manager!” The hardest part of changing your thinking is identifying negative thoughts, so write down negative thoughts and then write a positive thought next to it. Repeat this positive thought to yourself as needed.

4. Expand your network of support. It is important to recognize that it takes a team to manage food allergies and keep your child on track developmentally.

How to do this: Think about all of the people who contribute to your child’s growth and development. Is there something missing from your team? Is there a type of help that you are not getting? In what ways would you like the level of support on your team to be different? Think about the answers to all these questions and start to identify people who can help you.

5. Take time for yourself! Parenting a child with food allergies is only one of the roles that you have, so it is important to acknowledge your other roles, such as spouse, friend, employee, sibling, etc.

How to do this: It’s very important to try to find something you like to do that you can work into your regular routine that encourages a healthy lifestyle for you and your child. Identify things that you can do. Examples include exercise, reading a book, talking on the phone with a friend, taking a bubble bath, playing a musical instrument, etc. Schedule at least one of these activities a week. And remember that taking time for yourself makes YOU healthier, which makes you better able to care for your child!

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of FARE’s Food Allergy News. Read more of the newsletter here.