With Serious Food Allergies, When Should a Parent Consider Child Counseling?
Guest post by Marté J. Matthews, LMFT
One in 13 American children has a serious food allergy. That’s an estimated 5.9 million young people under the age of 18. Parenting children with food allergies can be a daily tightrope walk as parents wipe down every surface, read every label, and prepare meals from scratch to keep from having their next reaction. Even then, measures of quality of life in families managing food allergies show that tension and anxiety levels --quality of life measures --are higher than for most parents and more similar to families with serious and chronic illness. Coping with that level of stress is the daily life of a parent with a child with food allergy.
Parents ask me about how counseling could help their family. After all, food allergies are stressful, so everyone in the family is stressed. That’s just the way it is, right? It doesn’t have to be that way.
I work with families managing food allergies at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research at Stanford University and in my private practice. I’ve learned a lot from these families about healthy ways to deal with the stresses. I’ve seen them find ways to manage their stress, and I’ve helped many kids and parents learn coping skills to reduce their stress. I’ve helped kids with food allergies and phobias of being in public with food. I helped them learn to cut those feelings down to size, putting those fears in their place, and finding ways to enjoy life again.
Stress and anxiety symptoms are like your burglar alarm or smoke detector — when they sound the alarm, they help you know when something is dangerous. But any alarm system that goes off when nothing is wrong just isn’t helpful.
If you or your kids are in a state of near-constant stress, like that alarm that goes off all the time, therapy could be helpful. Therapy doesn’t shut off anxiety and stress but teaches strategies to manage it, to keep anxiety where it belongs.
Talking with your son or daughter about their worries and how they can be proactive could be helpful. Some children feel better by talking about what is bothering them. If your child starts talking and is upset, but gradually begins to feel better, you’re on the right track! Acknowledge her feelings, by name, without judging. You don’t have to agree with her ideas in order to be a good listener. Reassure him that you will be there and that together you can handle this by using language like “This feels really hard right now, and together, we are going to get through this.” When problems arise, take a problem-solving approach, rather than jumping to punish “bad” behavior.
As parents, we must avoid some of the most damaging habits: mocking, teasing, shaming or telling them to “just get over it.” These approaches can damage the relationship between you and your child, and they will learn they cannot trust you with their true feelings. Children who are punished or teased may avoid dealing with problems or even lie to try to get out of uncomfortable situations with their parents.
It’s important to note that parental anxiety can also be stressful for children — when adults get help, the children can benefit as well.
Signs that it might be time for therapy:
First, consider how you are doing:
- If you, the parent, are frustrated, anxious or angry, and having trouble coping with your stress. One sign could be frequently losing your temper. This could happen with your child, your spouse, or even at work when you least expect it.
- If your stress level is making it harder for you to do the normal, everyday things you need to do because you’re simply overwhelmed.
- If talking about your problems with friends and family just isn’t enough anymore.
- If you’re trying everything you can think of, and things aren’t getting better.
- If you or your child are having trouble concentrating, this can be a sign of stress
- If you worry excessively, feel constantly on edge, and can’t find a way to let down your guard.
- If either parent is drinking too much alcohol, taking too much medication or staying at work for long hours just so you don’t have to go home to deal with family life. If the quality of your marriage is declining due to stress.
Next, consider how your children are doing:
- If your child is becoming increasingly withdrawn, fearful, clingy or sad. If your child used to enjoy things, but loses interest in hobbies or friends, pay attention to those signs. If your child is afraid to go to school or to go to safe social events, the fears are butting in, not staying where they belong.
- If your child seems angry and is acting out, being aggressive and misbehaving.
- If your child is having aches and pains without any medical explanation- frequent headaches, tummy aches, tight and sore muscles,
- If your child is having problems with sleep -- too much, not enough, awake in the middle of the night and/or frequent nightmares.
- If your child has been the victim of bullying or teasing about allergies, you and your child will need to know your rights, the best ways a parent can help, how the child can develop assertive communication patterns to stop the cycle and how to create healthy friendships to develop allies.
If you or your child are experiencing any of these problems, a therapist, child psychologist or clinical social worker can help.
Where can you begin to find a therapist for your child?
- Ask your pediatrician, allergist or your local children’s hospital for a referral.
- Ask your insurance company for a list of therapists in your network.
- Ask around among your friends with similar concerns. A personal recommendation from a friend, is likely to be a helpful start.
- Web searches:
The American Association of Marriage & Family Therapists' Therapist Locator.
Psychology Today has an online searchable database.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America also offers Find an ADAA Therapist.
These websites have profiles that are maintained by the member therapists themselves, and include specializations, locations and insurance coverage accepted.
Keep in mind, you don’t necessarily need a therapist who knows everything about food allergy to get started. You need a therapist, clinical social worker or psychologist who knows how to work with parents and kids who are anxious, depressed and stressed. A good therapist will do their research and seek out professional consultation, when needed, and will establish an open and collaborative relationship to allow them to learn from you and your child.
Waiting until you or your child is feeling really awful, very depressed, or panicky and anxious makes everything harder, including the search for a therapist. Don’t wait until you and your child are on the verge of a crisis. I recommend making contact with a therapist, and getting scheduled for an initial appointment to meet them, even if you’re not sure. Starting therapy at the first signs of a social, emotional or behavioral problem really can help you all to be a healthier, happier family with food allergies.
Taking Your Child to a Therapist, KidsHealth.org, KidsHealth from Nemours, The Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media
Marté Matthews is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT45249) and Clinical Director of the Child & Family Counseling Group in San Jose, California. Marté offers psychotherapy for children, teens and their families, particularly with those facing the complex needs associated with serious food allergy. In her work at Sean N Parker Center for Allergy & Asthma Research at Stanford University, she works closely with the team conducting research on cutting-edge treatment for food allergy. Her role is to support children, teens and families in the clinical trials and to address social, emotional and behavioral issues that may arise during the studies. She has both personal and professional knowledge and experience with serious food allergy, including the associated anxiety and food-related or social phobias that may arise for affected families. For more information about this research, please visit http://med.stanford.edu/allergyandasthma/about-us.html.