How to Cope with Social Impacts of Childhood Food Allergies
For most kids, attending a birthday party, going on a field trip, or playing at a friend’s house is fun and exciting. It’s a typical part of childhood that causes minimal concerns for most children and their parents. For kids with food allergies, these types of activities can cause anxiety and may be risky to attend. And this may lead to feelings of sadness and loneliness.
Even if your child doesn’t have a food allergy, it’s very likely they have a friend or a classmate who does. Food allergies in children have been rising steadily over the years. According to Food Allergy Research & Education, one in 13 children have food allergies, which translates to about two students in every classroom. About 40% of the 5.6 million children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food.
In this article, we discuss the social implications of childhood food allergies and share some tips for managing social issues associated with having food allergies.
Social impacts of childhood food allergies
Having food allergies is a condition that impacts all aspects of a child’s life -- whether they’re at home, at school, at a birthday party, at the park, at a restaurant, on vacation, or playing at a friend’s house. Any time food may be present, it’s important to be prepared in case a life-threatening allergic reaction occurs.
Here are some examples of how food allergies can impact a child’s social life:
- Food allergies can limit activities outside of the home, such as playdates, field trips, and other school-related or extra-curricular events and activities where food is served
- Having food allergies may put the child at risk for social isolation, depression, and anxiety
- Food allergies may make the child a target of teasing and bullying by classmates
- Some schools have special lunch tables for children with food allergies, causing them to be socially isolated from their friends during what’s normally a social time
- When it comes to birthday parties, the issues can range from not being invited to feeling left out when cake and ice cream are being served. If you provide allergen-free treats for your child, they may feel self-conscious about it and still feel “othered.” And it can cause anxiety before and during the event for not only the child and parent, but for the party hosts.
What kids with food allergies worry about
What parents worry about may sometimes differ from what kids worry about when it comes to having food allergies. Here are some common feelings described by children with food allergies.
- They feel burdened with being responsible for their own safety and for being their own advocate.
- They’re concerned about being viewed differently or being left out.
- They’re self-conscious about eating different foods.
- They feel sad because they can’t eat certain foods their friends can.
- They feel lonely when they are separated to be protected from exposure to allergens.
Tips for managing physical and emotional impacts of food allergies
In the U.S., there aren’t any laws that prohibit bringing allergens to school. A school may request that parents avoid packing certain allergens for lunch or refrain from bringing in certain allergens for classroom parties, but there isn’t an effective way to monitor or enforce it. This is why it’s important to speak with the teachers and administrators at your child’s school.
As a caregiver, doing the following can help your child better cope with food allergies outside of your home:
- Educate: Schools are getting better about having action plans for managing food allergies, but it’s always a good idea to understand what they are and personally meet the staff members who will be interacting with your child daily. Providing education to your child’s school, teachers, and classmates to familiarize and normalize food allergies can go a long way in helping your child not feel singled out. Speak to your child’s teacher about the best way to explain food allergies to classmates who may not be aware of them. Help them understand what they can do to help their friends stay safe.
- Create a plan at school: Even if your school already has food allergy protocols in place, you must make sure they meet your child’s specific needs. In 2008, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended to add conditions that only show symptoms at certain times, which includes food allergies. This means the ADA requires accommodations to be made to make schools safer and healthier for children with food allergies. The accommodations vary by school and by individual depending on the needs of the student. For example, if your child is prohibited from joining the soccer team because the coach does not want to learn how to use an Epi-Pen, this would be an ADA violation.
- Listen: Ask your child what their concerns are and give them age-appropriate tools for dealing with tricky social situations at school. Share ways to respond to common questions as well as how to respond to teasing or bullying. Ensure they understand when they should go to a trusted adult for help.
- Be mindful of words: It’s important that your child does not feel like they are a burden to anyone, or that having allergies is their fault. Avoid telling them they can’t do something or join something due to their allergies because it may make them feel as if there’s something wrong with them. Avoid saying they can’t attend an event because you have to be there to supervise the entire time because it may make them feel like an inconvenience.
- Pack allergen-free lunches and snacks: Parents can minimize stress by packing snacks and lunches that are allergen-free so kids don’t have to ask the cafeteria staff about ingredients and preparation. It also minimizes the chances of an allergic reaction, which helps reduce stress and worry. Snacks like Without A Trace Chewy Granola Bars and Without A Trace Soft Chocolatey Chip Cookies are delicious options because they’re free of the Big 8 Allergens, sesame seeds, and gluten.
- Have a support system: Identify a few trusted adults at school (teachers, administrators, counselors, etc.) who understand the severity of your child’s allergy and can provide emotional support if your child is feeling isolated or if they’re being teased. Let your child know they can turn to these trusted adults at school if they’re upset or need any help when you’re not around.
- Plan ahead for classroom parties and celebrations: Ask your child’s teacher to let you know when there are upcoming birthday celebrations, holiday parties, or any classroom events involving food. Whenever possible, reach out to the other parent to find out what treats are being provided so you can add an allergen-free version of the same one. You may be pleasantly surprised how accommodating parents are when you bring it up!
- Seek counseling: If your child is having difficulty with coping strategies for anxiety and fear, or needs help building emotional resilience and confidence to stand up for themselves, seeing a counselor may be helpful. Having to live in a constant state of vigilance due to potential allergic reactions can be emotionally exhausting.
Due to the rise in childhood food allergies, there’s growing awareness and understanding about them. Schools are increasingly taking steps to protect children with allergies, educating parents and students about food allergies, and providing emotional support to ensure children with allergies feel included and safe at school.