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Food Allergies' Emotional Toll

As we discussed last week, food allergies can have a huge impact on the practical side of raising our children -- all of them -- in a safe environment. But allergies also exact an emotional toll on the kids and their parents.

Mom Tracy Rosenfeld has had to face those issues up front with her 6-year-old son, who is allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. Reactions to food has sent him to the hospital a handful of times. One incident last year sparked a sleepless month of night terrors. He'd wake saying "I ate something I shouldn't have Mommy," Rosenfeld said.

To a 6-year-old, those nightmares seem like reality. So, his parents took him to a therapist for help. The therapist came up with ways to help him understand that dreams are make believe, like playing with action figures, Rosenfeld says, and gave him tools that helped him re-learn how to sleep.

Kari Keaton's son Daniel also had a serious reaction when he was 6 that caused him to become more anxious. He "became extremely fearful of touching something he was allergic to," Keaton said, including pencils that other kids had used. The family worked for years to help him learn to be careful but also be able to live in the world.

As Daniel, who is now 16, has gotten older, he's been more concerned about not being different from his peers. If Daniel is with his friends and the group is eating food that could spark an allergic reaction, he'll just avoid eating altogether until he gets home, Keaton says.

Halloween, too, can be a difficult time for kids with allergies. When Keaton's 10-year-old son, Jeremy, was younger, his parents would leave little memo pads, raisins and stickers at nearby houses so he'd get some allergy-free loot. As he got older, his parents would pay him 10 or 20 cents per candy. Last year, he was depressed about the holiday and didn't go trick-or-treating because he couldn't eat any of the candy, Keaton says. But this year, Jeremy's looking forward to going out with his friends. "This year he'll just give his stuff to his friends. The kids just grow up -- it's easier for them to be part of the social experience. ... It becomes a matter of having fun with friends, and candy is secondary," Keaton says.

Both Keaton and Rosenfeld talk about kids with allergies as special needs kids -- something that some parents have schools categorize them as to ensure that schools meet their needs, Rosenfeld says. And parents of kids with allergies report feeling anxious as well. "As parents, it makes us more worried and concerned about the outside world," Rosenfeld says. "We have to be very careful to hide our own anxieties from him."

Do you find that your children's needs -- whatever they may be -- cause you or them anxiety? How do you help your children understand and cope with their differences?

11:30 a.m. Update: Just in this morning from two different research groups: Gradual introduction of food into allergic children in a medical setting can increase allergic children's tolerance for food, at least in a small study conducted jointly by Johns Hopkins Children's Center and Duke University. In the study, children with milk allergies were given increasingly higher doses of milk over time and found to build up a higher tolerance to milk products than those in a placebo group. In March, a Duke professor of pediatrics who has done some immunology studies told Washington Post reporter Rob Stein that "I'm hopeful that in five years, there may be some type of therapy from this."

And in other potentially good news on the allergy front, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center have found that about 70 percent of children with an egg allergy were able to tolerate heated egg during a food challenge and were then allowed to add baked egg products to their diets at home.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 29, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Health , Teens , Tweens
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"How do you help your children understand and cope with their differences?"

Use common sense. Deal with stuff appropriately. Each child is an individual; avoid "telegraphing" irrational fears and anxieties.

Posted by: jezebel3 | October 29, 2008 7:20 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Jezebel. My son recently went through a phase where he was irrationally scared that our house would catch fire. We patiently (for the most part) explained our plan to evacuate if we ever needed to, practiced it, reminded him that we would be immediately running down the hall to get him and his sister if the alarm ever went off in the middle of the night, and tried to provide comfort. Irrational fears are still legitimate fears to a child. Parents help or hinder depending on their response to these things.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | October 29, 2008 8:51 AM | Report abuse

Personally, I can't believe that parents consider their children "special needs kids" because of food allergies. I've never heard a parent of a diabetic child, or a child with epilepsy, consider their child "special needs", unless they also have developmental issues. Yes - children with serious food allergies have different challenges, but schools don't need special teachers or counselors to help them achieve their potential. Just teachers and administrators with enough common sense to remember that Johnny brings his own snack from home, and can't have the cupcake that Susie's mom brought for her birthday.

So many children have genuine special needs - developmental delays, emotional scars from abuse - that our schools are required to support. Adding food allergies to that list seems ridiculous to me.

Posted by: JHBVA | October 29, 2008 9:07 AM | Report abuse

I agree that designating a child as special needs for a food allergy does not make sense. But as a parent of a 4 year old with a very serious peanut allergy i also know that there needs to be a way to make sure schools are focused on the issue. Special needs children need and deserve a lot of attention and so do kids with allergies. You have to remember that of all the issues schools have to deal with, food allergies are typically the only ones that are life-threatening. That in and of itself means allergies deserve special attention and not just a passing "johnny needs to bring his own snack and not eat a cupcake."

Posted by: happydad3 | October 29, 2008 10:32 AM | Report abuse

i agree with JHBVA....special needs is not the term i would use for children with allergies. they don't need separate teaching styles, separate facilities such as ramps or bathrooms, or specialized staff to tend to their emotional/physical/educational needs. i do realize that children with allergies fall into a different category than all other children, and need to be accomodated for with extra classroom precautions, possible separate refrigerators, and general education to classmates. it's sad to hear that children with allergies are frightened to the point of nightmares regarding "forbidden foods" sad that they have to face a reality of serious harm or even death at such a young age!

Posted by: sp1103sd | October 29, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

While children with allergies do not necessarily have the same needs for classroom accomodation/modifications that other "special needs" children do, they still need consideration from their teachers. So many teachers use food as a teaching tool that it can be scary for parents of food-allergic children. One recent example I heard of involved a science teacher using peanuts in the classroom, then keeping the peanuts in the classroom over night. The next day, a peanut allergic student had a severe reaction to the fumes/dust in the room from the peanuts.

Posted by: MOMto2 | October 30, 2008 10:41 AM | Report abuse

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