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Susan Weissman is a middle-school English teacher turned writer and author of "Feeding Eden." Read more »
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As the mother of a son with multiple life threatening food allergies and a daughter who can eat anything, people often ask me, “Does your son ever get emotional about his allergies? How do you handle it?” My son, who is now nine years-old, was diagnosed eight years ago as allergic to several common, healthy foods including: dairy, soy, peanuts, nuts, sesame seeds and certain types of fish, shellfish and legumes.
Nearly six million children suffer from food allergies; however there are other diet-related health conditions and concerns that also challenge parents and their children. Whether children have different chronic conditions such as Celiac Disease, Diabetes, nutritional deficiencies or simply monitoring their child’s weight, parents face similar challenges when managing the emotional aspects of a restricted diet. Here are some tips that can help you navigate your child’s feelings about his or her special diet:
1. Parents should identify their own supports for feeding their families.
Parents are the captains of the family ship, and it won’t sail smoothly if you feel helpless in the face of special dietary needs. If you need emotional or educational support regarding your child’s health condition and diet, you should look for information from your child’s pediatrician or specialist, join a support group, and/or gain expertise by gathering realistic information. I spent years researching “free-of” food products and particular cooking strategies in the privacy of my home, but I also developed a network of outside support by finding other parents who were going through the same kinds of challenges. It was especially helpful to speak to parents within my community; they shared great tips like “allergy friendly” restaurants. Plus, if a child sees their parent engaged in a community dealing with the same eating restrictions, they are less likely to feel alone or singled out.
2. Parents should not blame themselves for their child’s restricted diet.
While chronic conditions that require a restricted diet often have genetic components, parents need to remember that there is nothing wrong, deficient or shameful about your child or family. Extended family members and friends may ask you questions like, “Does Diabetes, Celiac Disease, Crohns Disease, (fill in the blank) run in your family?” because they are confused or even concerned for their own families. But if you launch into a detailed explanation of your family’s genetic family tree using an apologetic or regretful tone your own child may feel embarrassed and view themselves as victim of their condition.
3. Remember that your child is a normal kid with an eating restriction.
While some adults may feel perfectly comfortable discussing the success of their latest diet, touting “Low-Carb!” or “No Gluten!”, if children hear their diets discussed publicly, they may feel embarrassed or self-conscious. Maintain your child’s emotional safety by restricting your explanations to whatever is medically safe and necessary. I can’t count how many times I have pulled my son’s “substitute foods” out of a bag at a school celebration only to have other adults begin to question me about the details of his allergies. I respond by simply explaining, “He has food allergies. Feel free to ask me about it privately.”
4. Be aware of the dynamics of your child’s “age and stage.”
When Eden was a toddler we could visit a friend’s home for brunch prepped with a bagel from home drizzled with olive oil and my son would disregard both the cream cheese and the fact that his food looked different. Now that he is nine years old, he has participated in countless social gatherings involving food and his priorities have changed. At Eden’s current “age and stage” he wants to fit in with his peers. Parents should try to respect their child’s social priorities outside the home and let them find compromises within their restricted diets. Respect their dietary strategies as they grow. For example, as long as your child has a safe “food plan” or “substitute,” let them make choices about the appearance or substance of their food.
When your child has a restricted diet, the food they eat is a means to end. While complex emotions can arise, food always tastes better when selected or prepared with family support. Parents - How do you support your children’s diets?
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