I have read several articles lately speaking to the mindset and mental health of parents who have a food allergic child. While I am glad that research is finally being done to recognize that there is a significant impact on mental health of families living with food allergies, I think we have a long way to go in understanding the core issues and how to best support those families.
One study talked about the limited diets of toddlers and children with food allergy, focusing on the perception of the mothers. Mothers had more anxiety about the limited diet of their food allergic child than mothers of children the same age without the restrictions. I would like to offer my two cents.
Most toddlers and young children have limited diets. Ever look at a children's menu at a restaurant? If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Mac-n-cheese, chicken nuggets, burgers, fries, grilled cheese, spaghetti, pizza. Oh! Don't forget the applesauce, because that makes it a healthy meal. The reason this menu is almost universal is because those are the foods kids predictably eat.
Many mothers occasionally lament the fact that their child is a picky eater, and won't eat anything else. The difference is that these mothers have unlimited choice available to them, even if they do not exercise that freedom.
Food allergic mothers feel more anxiety about the limited diet of their child, often because the options ARE limited. They don't have the freedom to make random food choices, to stop at any convenient restaurant on the way home, grab just any brand of grocery off the shelf. Every bite is carefully researched and considered to be sure it is allergen free. Removing the freedom to interact with the world of food in a spontaneous manner has an amazing amount of impact on the mental state of mothers especially.
It is stressful to think so carefully about every bite entering your child's mouth. Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. Crumbs found on the table or in the couch. Food friends offer. Classroom treats. Family gatherings and holiday potlucks. One bite at any of these functions could be the difference between an enjoyable day and a trip to the ER.
There is good news. The safe options are rapidly expanding as food allergy knowledge and prevalence increases. Even with multiple allergies, it is possible to have a variety of safe options for meals. It took many years for my mindset to shift from one of feeling deprivation to realizing the abundance of choice.
I'd love to see more research on how to help moms make the mental switch with me. I'd love to see research on the diets of our children, to see if there really is a large disparity in variety and nutrition, or if we perceive it as such due to our enforced restrictions. I'd love to see more support for newly diagnosed families on how to adapt recipes, find replacement products, and get connected to support groups that can help with the everyday struggles. Most of all, I'd love to see more physicians recognize that there is a gap in support and strive to help patients fill it: in medical knowledge, practical application to daily living, emotional and social support.
The challenges of food allergy are much more complex than just avoiding food and remembering your epinephrine device. Those who manage food allergy personally and those who supervise management of food allergy will enhance the mental health of our community when we work together to provide more seamless support.