‘My son has a nut allergy and I find it all very stressful to manage’

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Question: My eldest boy (8) has a nut allergy and I find it all very stressful to manage. Nuts seem to be everywhere, and my husband and I constantly check to ensure he does not come into contact with them.

Even so, we had a recent incident where we had to use his adrenalin injector when we were out. I found it all a bit scary and it made me worried as to what would happen if he were in school or with someone else when it happened (he does have his injector with him at all times, but you just don’t know what will happen).

And then there is the concern about worrying him about it. He is already a bit of worrier and since the recent incident seems to be living with a fear that all food is dangerous. He is a thoughtful boy who can ruminate about things. Yesterday, he asked me if nuts could kill him. I hesitated before answering and he then went into a panic. I tried to tell him that we would not let that happen and that he had his injector all the time. I probably did not handle it well because he certainly picked up on my anxiety.

I am often worried about it all myself, but we are doing all we can to protect him.

Answer: Being a protective parent always involves a degree of anxiety. Good parents have to anticipate potential risks and dangers so they can plan to avoid them. Parenting a child with a nut allergy, which presents a serious health risk, can be particularly worrying and stressful. Unlike some worries that might be more imagined than real, a nut allergy reaction is something that needs to be taken seriously and is one you need to plan to prevent. The good news is that for the many children who have peanut allergy, there are relatively few serious incidents. With appropriate vigilance, the children are kept safe when they are younger and then empowered to self-manage their safety as they get older.

Managing your own anxiety

Anxiety is contagious and can escalate. If you are over-worried about your son’s nut allergy, this can spark his own anxiety and worry. The more you can come across to your son as confident and secure in how you will help him manage, the more he will be inspired to be confident and secure in return.

The key to managing your anxiety is to channel it into appropriate action. Use your anxiety to help you think up an appropriate and realistic safety plan and communicate this to your son. Work closely with your son’s GP and other specialists to create this. There are many excellent websites that list all the actions you can take as a parent ( see kidshealth.org or mayoclinic.org or Irish food allergy network ifan.ie, to get started). These include ensuring your son wears a safety bracelet, having written instructions for all carers/ teachers, practising the use of his injector etc. 

I would suggest you write down a clear written safety plan with your husband, that you can review periodically to reassure yourself that you are doing all you can to protect your child. Once you have done this, then it is a case of letting go your anxiety and focusing on getting on with life.

Manage your son’s anxiety

Children respond to a potential risk or a threat in two different ways. Some children pay no attention to the risk or don’t fully believe it. These children do not feel enough anxiety about the danger they are in and the goal as parent is to make them feel a bit more alarm and fear so they will act more safely.

Then, there are other children who over-worry about risks and can become panicky and debilitated in the face of them. These children feel too much anxiety and the goal as a parent is to help them reduce the anxiety they feel. I suspect your son is in the second group.

To help him manage the goal over time is to help him realistically understand the issues around his nut allergy and to have a clear plan of action for his safety. When he panics, try to respond in an understanding, calm and confident way. If he asks if he could die from contact with nuts, acknowledge his feelings but also focus him on positive action – “you might worry about this but it is very unlikely because you and I are very safe about what you eat. And even if you start to have a reaction we always have your injector with you”. It can be helpful to go through safety steps with him in specific detail and rehearse what you would do in certain situations. 

Living well in spite of the worry

Despite having a good, well-rehearsed safety plan, this will not mean all worry and anxiety will disappear. It is quite likely that you and your son will continue to worry. This is a sign that you are taking safety seriously, which is important. At those times, it is a case of trying to distract yourself back from the worry to get on with what is important in your life. A useful strategy is to name the worry when it starts – “that is just the worry thinking” and then to remind yourself and your son of your plan – “we are doing all we can to keep safe”, before getting on with things – “let’s not let the worry stop us enjoying ourselves”.

– John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie

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