Childhood Food Allergies: Parental Stress and Coping

Greater communication and understanding can reduce parental and child stress levels.

The day-to-day demands of parenting can be stressful. However, parenting a child with food allergies can certainly increase that “typical” parental stress and impact quality of life. The tips below can help parents manage the additive stress/anxiety of keeping children safe while living with food allergies.

First, be prepared. Always have your child’s epinephrine auto injector readily available. Even if you think there will be no food exposure, as in say a quick run to the store or walk around the neighborhood, having the auto injector helps reduce stress by creating a sense of safety. By having the auto injector available, you also model the importance of always managing food allergies. Now, you do not need to make a big show of having the medication available, but creating a sense of safety for you and your child is critical to reducing stress.

If your child is not in your care, a food allergy action plan should be available to the adults responsible for your child. This should include a list of foods your child is allergic to, symptoms, all medications (antihistamine, epinephrine auto injector, inhaler if needed, etc.), your contact information and your child’s physician’s information. Make certain there is an adult comfortable with providing medical intervention, if needed. The more you can trust your child is safe, the less stress you will experience.

Second, know your child’s strengths and challenges. Like most developmental stages, there exists a spectrum of behaviors when managing food allergies at different ages and stages. There is no “one size fits all” approach. However, understanding your child’s developmental stage and their perception of their food allergies will guide communication and intervention. For example, we would not expect a 6-year-old to read food labels, but he/she should be capable of telling an adult they have food allergies. Nor would you expect a 10-year-old to self-inject epinephrine. However, we would expect that child to detect symptoms of anaphylaxis and communicate need for intervention to an adult. Ask yourself the following:

  • What does my child think will happen if they eat the offending food?
  • What does my child understand about the auto injector and are they fearful?
  • Can and will my child communicate with adults about their food allergies, especially if they are having a reaction or feel unsafe?
  • Is my child being bullied, and would they communicate if it were happening?
  • Also ask yourself if your expectations match your child’s ability to manage their food allergies.

If you are parenting an adolescent or young adult with food allergies, know this population is at greatest risk for an adverse event or fatal outcome related to their food allergies. You should know if your child’s friends understand how to administer the auto injector, as well as if your adolescent is comfortable communicating with health care providers, friends, coaches, or romantic partners about their food allergy. You should also ask yourself the following questions:

  • How does your adolescent feel about such communication?
  • Does your adolescent engage in risk-taking behaviors with their food allergies?
  • What is their attitude about always carrying their auto injector?

The more you know, the greater your ability to intervene and support your child. Ultimately, greater communication and understanding will reduce parental and child stress levels.

Third, be aware of your stress level. Are you constantly vigilant, irritable, on edge or depressed? Do you live with a sense of dread or impending doom? Do you worry your child will die if they have an accidental exposure? Are your thoughts often focused on how to control your child’s environment to ensure their safety? Have you lost meaningful relationships or are you limiting your social interactions due to your child’s food allergy? Any or all of these signs can indicate clinical levels of stress. Talk to a professional as you may need additional support and intervention. Parenting a child with food allergies can be stressful and families do seek psychological support to reduce stress and increase their quality of life in the face of managing a chronic condition.

Jane Robinson, PhD is a Clinical Pediatric Psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado and a member of the Section of Allergy and Immunology. She is also 
on FAACT’s Medical Advisory Board. Dr. Robinson graduated from Case Western Reserve University in 1999. She has worked with children and families managing a range of chronic childhood illnesses, most prominently those with allergies, asthma and other atopic conditions. Her clinical and research areas focus on childhood chronic illness, quality of life and coping with anxiety.

Dr. Robinson was not compensated by the National Peanut Board for this article.