The 5 stages of food allergy grief: a child’s emotional reaction

DR was originally diagnosed with an egg allergy at 18 months old, at which time it was easier to limit his exposure as he only ate what we gave him.  A couple months after his 2nd birthday, we discovered his peanut allergy.  It was a little more difficult to avoid this allergen as peanut butter was one of his favorite foods.  We quickly replaced all of the peanut products in our house and finally found a suitable alternative to peanut butter.  Now that he is older and is learning to eat things for pleasure/taste he starting to go through his own stages of food allergy grief, making the exposure more difficult to avoid.  As a parent, only able to watch from the sidelines, his reactions can either add to the stress or help with the overall learning process.

Denial:  To keep him from feeling left out or isolated from other children, we tried to find as many alternatives to normal foods that looked or tasted similar.  For a while, we thought we had it made.  However, in the instances that we cannot predict when food will be brought to school for surprise parties, special events, or impromptu outings, it is difficult to have equivalent alternatives.  For example, one day last week, a child in DR’s class had a birthday.  Up to this point, no parents had brought in treats for other birthdays.  On this particular day, the other child’s parents decided to bring in special cookies.  Of course DR could not have one.  The cookies looked just like allergy-free cookies I had made before, so he could not understand why he couldn’t have them.  This led to a meltdown.  At 3 years old, he cannot understand why some items have eggs and others do not, and while I try to explain it to him, I am at a loss right now.

Anger:  Before his first reaction to peanuts I would allow DR to pick out a candy treat when he was good in the grocery store.  Due to having to read all ingredients for his egg allergy, grocery trips could be 2-3 hours and his compliance was key.  After his peanut allergy was discovered, this reward system disappeared.  Even though I offered him other rewards like stickers or books, he still wanted his candy.  One day, as we were checking out after a long grocery trip, he grabbed some candy off the shelf (of course it had to be Reese Cups), and tried to open them with his teeth.  As I wrestled them away from him, he was screaming and crying angrily at me, “I WANT THEM!!!”  I tried to explain from the store to the car, on the ride home, and even after carrying all the groceries into our kitchen, but his poor little 2 year old mind could not understand why this had changed.  He was used to not getting his candy when he misbehaved, but he had been perfect during this trip (except for the angry tantrum).  Since then, I try to avoid food as a reward, giving him other options at the beginning of our trips, so food is not an option in the end. 

Bargaining:  Bargaining has a very literal meaning here.  Despite all of my preparation,  extra snacks, and explanations to DR and others, I still have to keep a close eye on DR as he eats.  I have caught him in many instances swapping food with other kids, sharing his special snacks.  When he realizes he is caught, he claims that he is sharing. I have to start my explanations all over again.  Then there are the times he sneaks foods that he KNOWS he cannot have.   A couple weeks ago, we caught him eating his dad, Justin’s donuts.  As we panicked looking for the first sign of a reaction, DR kept saying “I fine.  I not itchy.”  Unfortunately, within minutes the rash started, and again we had to explain the dangers to him. 

Depression:  Halloween was a rough time for us this past year. I was extremely vigilant in keeping him away from candies.  I purchased allergy-free snacks to switch out when he went trick-or-treating.  I donated allergy-free options to local trunk-or-treats.  I literally prepared a month in advanced for this event.  In our town, Halloween and Fall festivals spanned several weeks, so we had a good pattern going.  Unfortunately, by the time Halloween actually arrived, DR was so burnt out from all of our special treats, activities, and precautions that he didn’t want to go trick-or-treating.  It was then that I learned that there should be limits to how concerned or scared we adults appear to children with allergies.  He was beginning to mimic my depression, and this was what I had been hoping to avoid

Acceptance:  I am amazed at how quickly DR can grasp this concept.  I think because his allergies developed at such a young age, we are avoiding some of the worse emotional reactions.  I love that at 3 years old he asks if food that is presented to him has eggs or peanuts.  And most of the time he loves his special foods.  I wish that my own acceptance of the issue could come as easily.

I am very much aware that as he ages DR will repeat the cycle of food-allergy grief, but I feel hopeful that he remain the spunky, wild, vivacious boy that I love.

~Lacey

 

 

 

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