Finding out your child has an allergy can be an overwhelming experience. Not only do you have to manage them from a medical perspective, but there is that constant tug, that worry, that need to protect. Suddenly, everyday life is full of danger, and as an allergy family, anxiety becomes a norm. Educational psychologist Lauren Freese shares some interesting thoughts.
Having received a diagnosis, you are riddled with questions. What now? How do we manage school? How do we manage restaurants? What about playdates and parties? How do I keep my child safe? What will happen if I am not there, and a reaction occurs? Do others know what to do?
Everything that seemed normal before is suddenly a threat, and the world becomes unsafe.
And then there is the guilt. It’s normal to feel guilty. However, when your child’s safety in the world is compromised, that guilt can be all-consuming. Google becomes your new best friend, and you become riddled with even more questions about your ability to parent. Did you do something wrong in the pregnancy? Was your weaning process flawed? Should you have gone to that talk on starting solids? Did you introduce nuts too early or too late?
You feel guilty about having to pack your child her own snack pack for every party. You feel guilty that your child cannot attend the picnic at a place known for having a lot of bees. You feel guilty that your child cannot roll on the grass like a ‘normal kid’. You feel guilty all the time, about everything.
Explaining allergies to others
We live in an era where the severity and impact of allergies are not yet fully recognised. This makes managing allergies that much more difficult. So often, we hear: “Back in my day we didn’t have these things” or “I had to eat what was given to me” or “It’s not that bad, it’s all in your head”.
Sometimes allergy parents have no other choice but to be downright rude. Just think how often your dairy-allergic child is offered ice-cream or cake or chocolate. Other people’s good intentions can have severe consequences for those with allergies, and where there is little understanding, there is very little support.
Withdrawal is dangerous, too
In an attempt to protect our children from this new-found danger, we tend to withdraw from people, peers and “normal” activities around us. This allows us to feel that we have more control over our children and the exposure they have to their allergies.
But what we miss in this process is that we are reinforcing the idea that the world is unsafe, both for ourselves and our children.
We tend to feel more anxious, and our need to protect increases. Our allergy journeys become increasingly lonely in our quest to protect. The more isolated we feel, the more we isolate ourselves, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Managing the Emotional Impact: A shift in focus
Children are terrified of their diagnoses because more often than not, they are continuously told that they may die. Of course, this is to try and protect them and to get them to understand the impact their allergic reactions may have. But it leaves them vulnerable and scared.
What if we focused more on the diagnosis as a starting point, as a way for our children and us to feel empowered? The diagnosis lessens the unknown and allows for more information around precisely what is happening in our children’s bodies.
The more we know, the more we can understand. The more we can understand, the more we can protect. We need to let go of the should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, and didn’t mentality that parent guilt creates and move forward, seeking clarity and support.
Working with what we know
One of the hardest things about managing a life with allergies is the vast degree of uncertainty. We are unable to predict when, where, or how exposure to an allergen may happen, and this creates anxiety.
However, some aspects are known. We know the response the child may have, and we know the action plan. We and others who care for our children know how to respond if an allergic reaction occurs. This is what we can control.
Tell yourself every day: “You have the skills to manage this; you are capable.”
The importance of education and self-advocacy
Not only are you capable of managing your child’s allergies, but children, too, are capable human beings. Educating your child about their bodies and their allergies empowers them with knowledge and understanding.
It is vitally important that we explain allergies to our children, within what is age-appropriate. So often, our children are dragged from specialist to specialist without having any say or explanation. To allow our children to grow and develop the skills of independence, they need to understand.
Our children can learn to ask questions, read labels, and advocate for their protection. If our children can manage their allergies independently as they grow older, our anxiety around their allergies will decrease. We can trust that our children know and understand what is best for them and know and understand the action plan.
Surrounding yourself with people you trust
Creating a team of professionals and individuals who can support you will allow you to process and understand this life of allergies. Good communication between all parties involved is essential.
Asking questions about a life with allergies, even those that seem trivial, is the only way of learning and developing. Connect with other parents who have similar experiences. Make use of the professionals – your paediatrician, your allergy doctor, and your dietician. Seek support when support is needed and give yourself a break. By recognising your own needs, you are better able to understand and support the needs of your child.
Ann Landers said, “It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings”.
There are many facets to managing this life of allergies. However, the most important thing to remember is that it is manageable. Allergies are a part of who your child is, not their definition. By shifting focus towards a more positive and forward-thinking frame, the knowledge you have becomes less overwhelming and more empowering. Suddenly the world does not seem like such a scary place, and you know you can cope.
- Lauren Freese is a qualified Educational Psychologist who has worked in both remedial and mainstream education settings. As the mom of a daughter with Sensory Processing Difficulties, Lauren has first-hand insight into how specific difficulties impact many areas of learners’ and caregivers’ lives. Lauren is passionate about learning difficulties, learner support, as well as parent and educator training. She strives to make the lives of learners, their caregivers, and educators easier by creating a level of understanding and support for them.
The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of allergies , their psychological impact and the treatment options that are available for it. This article should by no means be used, or viewed, as a primary source for medical or other professional advice – please arrange for a personal consultation with your medical practitioner or psychologist before taking any decisions that could affect the wellbeing of you or your loved ones. Read our medical disclaimer for more information.