Bridget Zimmerman of Franklin was allowed to board a recent flight early in order to wipe down her family’s seats, eliminating any possible peanut remains that could cause her 11-year-old son, Drew, to have a reaction. The airline also agreed not to serve peanuts during the flight.

But the potential of an allergic reaction was almost too much for Drew.

“Drew was really nervous the entire time. I had to calm him down and assure him that it would be OK, when in reality, I never know for sure if it is going to be OK,” says Zimmerman.

Drew’s anxiety over his peanut allergy is a common symptom for kids who must adjust their everyday interactions to avoid a reaction. Children with severe food allergies must balance living cautiously in order to avoid their allergens and living with enough confidence to be a functioning part of society.

Jeanne Herzog, a child psychologist in the Milwaukee area who specializes in counseling children with food allergies and their families, points out that since children with food allergies are dealing with a real threat, “some anxiety is absolutely required — in the form of caution and diligence. But too much anxiety can be debilitating.”

Children with food allergies are forced to grow up faster than other children, from becoming more aware of their surroundings than other children to learning about the potentially fatal consequences of their allergies, Herzog said.

In her book, “Don't Kill the Birthday Girl,” author Sandra Beasley, a woman who has severe and multiple food allergies, including milk, describes a familiar incident for allergy families. On a family trip to Hershey Park, she convinced herself that a ride on a roller coaster that went near the chocolate factory would result in an allergic reaction if she breathed in chocolate fumes.

“As we rounded a sharp curve, we entered a pocket of air that seemed particularly heavy with the stink of chocolate. My small, adrenaline-filled body tensed up. My face felt hot. I began to wheeze. I got off the ride in tears, went straight for my inhaler and spent the rest of the afternoon in the refuge of the carousel ... I was a fearful child, self-consciously primed to have a reaction, and so I did,” she says.

Maaike Airoldi of Oak Creek says her 11-year-old daughter, Jadyn, gets anxiety from her peanut allergy. “I remember going to a restaurant and asking the chef what was safe for her to eat, and when her food came, she wouldn't touch it. She was so full of fear and anxiety that she chose not to eat her dinner, and instead ate goldfish crackers,” she says. “When I get that knot in my stomach worrying about Jadyn's allergy, I try to reassure myself that I am doing everything I can to make sure she is safe. All the information I have now about food allergies helps calm my anxieties.”

Physical safety plan

When anxiety and even panic prevent a child from enjoying what they can eat, their options become even more limited. Creating an action plan can provide peace of mind for a child.

  • Always know where EpiPens are located.
  • Find babysitters and day care facilities that understand food allergies
  • Post reminders of the symptoms wherever you thinks it is needed.
  • List and post the steps to take if your child exhibits any symptoms.
  • Always read food labels, and teach your child how to do it for himself.
  • Teach your child how to talk with chefs at restaurants.

Emotional safety plan

Focus on the physical realities of food allergies shouldn't cause you to neglect the emotional health of your child.

Herzog recommends coming up with a list of anxiety-reducing strategies, writing them up and posting them somewhere easily accessible. When you're in the midst of an anxiety attack, it's “nice to have an actual physical plan so after you understand the information, you can see constructively how to deal with it and then move on to the next step,” she says.

Here are some strategies to include in an emotional safety plan:

  • Change negative thoughts to positive thoughts. A child or parent who is gripped by fear is often preoccupied with thinking of all the possible negative answers to the “what-if questions.” Because of this, they often ignore the fact that they're “actually in a positive, happy, safe moment,” Herzog explained at a recent Milwaukee FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) conference. “There are actually more positive moments than negative. You have to build up the positives.”
  • Practice proper breathing techniques. Herzog coaches her patients to use “belly breathing,” a type of breathing that comes naturally when “belly talking” or lying on your stomach and just having a conversation. Practicing belly talking in calm situations will allow belly breathing to come naturally when it's needed as a relaxation technique in anxious situations.
  • Remember to play. Herzog emphasizes that playing, laughing and having fun — just being a kid — are key for relieving anxiety.
  • Proper sleep and nutrition are key to anxiety relief — just as they are to general health. Seek professional help if you or your child's anxiety is taking over your life and preventing joy.

When you know what to do, you and your child can feel confident.

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