"The Psychological Impact of Food Allergies on Children and Their Families"
Although it is not commonly acknowledged, food allergies have a large psychological impact in addition to its physical effects. This is especially dangerous for children, who face many effects such as bullying, lower quality of life, and other different types of stress as a result. Furthermore, the impact is so great that even their families feel it, as they are affected as well. After doing research by reading through scholarly articles, watching a documentary, and doing a personal interview with a mother who has a son with food allergies, I was able to conclude that the impact can be lessened by paying attention to personality types, types of food allergies, and improving medicine and therapy.
Keywords: Psychology, Food Allergy, Children, Families
Not everyone has allergies, and those who do have varying degrees and types of allergies. Food allergies are some of the most common ones. The effects of allergies also vary. Some have mild reactions, perhaps some itching or swelling. But for others, it can lead to hospitalization if one is not careful. This has a magnitude of effects in daily life. For a child, it’s even more difficult and possibly even more deadly. Although some people can just casually browse the grocery store for whatever they’d like, families with food allergies have to be careful when shopping, when ordering at restaurants, and even when preparing snacks.
Although it's often not thought about, in addition to the effects listed above, food allergies also have a psychological impact, especially having to manage them. Food allergies are not often thought of as something major, especially to those who have none or are close to anyone with one. It is important to inform and educate all about the psychological impact of food allergies, even those who don’t have food allergies, for this reason. Because food allergies have an impact on entire families, it is important to understand where it comes from, what the impact of it is, and how to deal with it.
PSYCHOLOGICAL DANGERS OF FOOD ALLERGIES
For a child, having to manage food allergies can be very draining. One thing they have to deal with is learning how to live with them, and noticing how they are different from other kids who don’t have food allergies. This is a problem that is becoming more and more frequent. In a study specifically done in Australia, it was found that there was a “food allergy occurrence in 1-in-12 children” (Fong et al. 2018, p. 741). This means that food allergies are not uncommon in Australia, and there is a high chance that children will be affected by them. For this reason, the impact food allergies have is something that children and parents should have concern for. Even outside of Australia, with food allergies being a more common occurrence as time passes, it is becoming a problem for more children.
For this reason, the impact food allergies have is something that children and parents should have concern for. In fact, food allergies are becoming a primary reason for bullying. The research for the study done in Australia was done using two different surveys; one for parents and for the children, in multiple choice format. The survey found that “Of the 39 who were bullied, 21 (54%) were bullied directly because of their food allergy.” With results like this, it’s apparent that food allergies have more than a physical effect. Kids have to deal with the consequences outside of the bodily effects of food allergies as well. According to another survey by researchers Feng and Kim (2019), in which through multiple studies and surveys at different schools and children, they were able to obtain sample percentages of these results and how often such things happen, possible incidents that have actually happened to a young boy include “taunting, threatening him with forced food ingestion, throwing food in his direction, or even surreptitiously contaminating his lunch” (p. 74). Such incidents create traumatic experiences for kids and an unsafe environment that parents will worry about.
Depending on the severity of allergies, this kind of bullying could even be fatal, making it very reasonable for children to worry about this happening to them. This is why, in the study done in Australia, even “For those not bullied, 31% were concerned that they may experience bullying as a result of their food allergy in future” (Fong et al., 2018, p. 741). Not only is it shown, statistically, that a primary cause of bullying is food allergies, it is also shown that those who hadn’t been bullied still show concern about being bullied as the result of their food allergies in the future. Even the mental health of the kids who haven’t been bullied yet takes a toll due to their worries.
QUALITY OF LIFE
Not every parent always notices when their kid is being impacted by food allergies. In a study taken from the article “Quality of Life in Childhood, Adolescence and Adult Food Allergy: Patient and Parent Perspectives,” targeted toward children or adolescents and their parents in different age groups, the study aimed to compare the results from the children to the results from their parents, an important result was that they “found no differences between the mothers’ and fathers’ assessments of the child, but that both parents scored the child’s HRQL better than the child’s own assessment” (Stensgaard et al., 2017, p. 537). The HRQL, or health related quality of life, of the family’s child was not estimated consistently between the family members. This is important because it shows that sometimes the parents do not notice how much allergies affect their children. Although not intentional, if parents don’t notice the stress their child may go through as a result of dealing with food allergies, it may cause the child’s stress to worsen.
That being said, food allergies, having an impact on the child, will of course also have an impact on the child’s whole family. According to Feng and Kim (2019), this primarily impacts the mother, as “Mothers reported more anxiety and stress, and a greater impact on their QoL, than anyone else in the family, including the food-allergic children themselves” (p. 74). The large amount of stress from managing food allergies causes a lower quality of life, or QoL, in general. Especially as many mothers are in charge of feeding their children on top of having to balance their jobs, chores, daily life, as well as taking care of themselves. In a personal interview with a mother, a family friend, she brought to my attention that a large cause of stress that hinders her quality of life comes from managing not only her son’s food allergies of eggs, peanuts and seafood, but also food allergies of her own. Her son got his food allergies from her, genetically, so she feels somewhat guilty that he has to deal with them.
In addition to concerns like bullying and quality of life, managing food allergies in general causes great stress for children. Mental issues such as “depression, anxiety, [and] post-traumatic stress” are some of the problems that can develop as a result (Feng and Kim, 2019, p. 74). A large factor of this is the post-traumatic stress symptoms or PTSS. This can be due to the stress of managing food allergies and also a result of food avoidance, which can be “psychologically disabling” (Feng and Kim, 2019, p. 74). In my personal interview with a mother, she claimed that when her son was first finding out about his severe food allergy to eggs, his lips had become itchy and swollen and as a result he was too scared to even try to eat other foods. A major reason food allergies have such an impact on children is that they have no experience to make them feel safe. When her son found out about his allergies for the first time, he was unable to respond rationally. Dealing with this caused herself to be stressed as well.
Another source of stress is when food allergies lead to fatal accidents. Despite the obvious physical effects of this, it leads to psychological effects to more people than just the one who has food allergies. In an episode of ViewFinder, a documentary series from PBS that explores various topics in larger perspectives, they cover the story of Natalie Giorgi, a girl with severe peanut allergies, and the impact food allergies can have on a family. Despite following her family following an allergy action plan, after Natalie ate a Rice Krispie treat that unknowingly had peanut butter, she passed away as a result. The documentary also talks about different causes and types of food allergies, possible treatments to allergies, and the importance of spreading awareness. Although the documentary doesn’t focus on the psychological impact, it can still be seen throughout, especially with Natalie’s family. The death of Natalie, naturally, had a profound impact on the family as they mourned her loss. It is shown how bad of an impact food allergies can have physically and mentally.
LESSENING THE IMPACT
Food allergies have a strong psychological impact, so what can we do about it? Well, there are multiple studies being done to find out. In the article “The Role of Personality in Daily Food Allergy Experiences,” the researchers conducted a survey on adults of various ages with various food allergies that measured personality traits. These personality traits (neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness) are called the Big Five. The reason the researchers wanted to focus on these traits is because “the Big Five personality traits have been linked to illness adaptation and to indicators of illness adaptation (e.g., quality of life, perceived physical health, and perceived psychological health) in individuals with other chronic conditions,” (Conner et al., 2018). If these traits affect these illnesses, then it would make sense if they affected food allergies as well. The survey found that “the data showed that people higher in trait openness had the greatest difficulty managing their food allergies in daily life,” (Conner et al., 2018). This means that personality does have an effect on the impact of food allergies. This is important to note, as it means that the psychological impact of food allergies will vary from person to person. Although the article is focused on research on adults it is noted that “Understanding a child's personality disposition, such as to openness, could help parents enact strategies to work with, rather than against, their child's personality to help them manage their food allergy,” (Conner et al., 2018). The reason this research is important even regarding children is because it contains data that could create possible strategies to help manage food allergies. Personality is something that can be taken into consideration when researching the psychological impact of food allergies. If differences in personality are taken into account when making food allergy management plans, you can customize and personalize these plans for better results.
TYPES OF FOOD ALLERGIES
Another important factor to pay attention to is the types of food allergies people have. Many people have different allergies with differing severities. Another conclusion formed from the survey in “Quality of Life in Childhood, Adolescence and Adult Food Allergy: Patient and Parent Perspectives” was that, “While thresholds from food challenges to hazelnut and egg showed no association with HRQL, we found that the lower the threshold for peanut, the more adverse effect on HRQL” (Stensgaard et al., 2017, p. 537). According to the survey, health related quality of life is not really affected by hazelnut or egg allergies, but peanut allergies had a greater impact. This shows that some food allergies will have a greater impact than others. In a peanut allergy’s case, this could be because of reasons such as accidental ingestion.
This is something that is already noted in places like schools. In the personal interview with a mother, she informed me that while her son was not treated differently for his food allergies in a negative way such as bullying, he was put in the peanut free table for lunch during elementary school. This was, of course, to avoid accidentally giving him foods that may have had peanuts in them for lunch. Doing this improved the physical safety of the child, but also relieved her stress. Knowing he was less likely to accidentally consume something he was allergic to and have a reaction to it was reassuring.
MEDICINE AND THERAPY
Lastly, the most obvious solution is to improve food allergy treatment. In the ViewFinder documentary episode, Natalie’s sister, Danielle, who also had food allergies, started taking injected medication after Natalie’s passing. As a result, according to their doctor, “her ability to feel safe increased, her parent’s anxiety was decreased.” With better treatments and ways to manage food allergies, the whole family’s mental health increases as they start to feel more comfortable with this improved treatment. This is also seen with another patient in the episode, Michael, who starts oral immunotherapy (OIT). To treat his peanut allergy, he has to take small doses of peanuts around every 12 hours. Michael found that “immunotherapy is just helping so much to mediate that stress [of managing allergies] and that worry that eating a peanut or something as simple as that could threaten your life.” The therapy worked wonderfully, as Michael went from not being able to eat any peanuts at all to being able to eat foods such as Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and peanut butter. Not only did his stress alleviate, his quality of life augmented as a result of being able to eat more foods, foods he would’ve never been able to touch. As technology and medicine improves, it is likely that mental health of patients with food allergies and their families will also improve because of the reassurance they gain from being able to be kept safe.
Not many people acknowledge the psychological impact of food allergies. Some people don’t even realize the severity of the physical impact. There are devastating psychological consequences of food allergies that include bullying, mental issues, stress and anxiety. That being said, the psychological impact of food allergies can be reduced through acknowledging different personalities and different types of food allergies, as well as improving medicine and therapy. However, for these to be completely effective, knowledge of the psychological impact of food allergies must be more common, so spreading awareness of more than just the physical effects of food allergies is essential.
Conner, T. S., Mirosa, M., Bremer, P. & Peniamina, R. (2018). The Role of Personality in Daily Food Allergy Experiences. Front. Psychol. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00029
Feng, C. , & Kim, J. H. (2019). Beyond Avoidance: the Psychosocial Impact of Food Allergies. Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology, 57(1), 74. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A593171798/HRCA?u=uiuc_lewis&sid=bookmark-HRCA&xid=d396a2ee
Fong, Katelaris, C. H., & Wainstein, B. K. (2018). Bullying in Australian children and adolescents with food allergies. Pediatric Allergy and Immunology, 29(7), 740–746. https://doi.org/10.1111/pai.12955[KVIEvideo]. (2019, March 26). ViewFinder: Food for Thought – Food Allergies [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/zOtPZSXrM08
Stensgaard, Bindslev‐Jensen, C., Nielsen, D., Munch, M., & DunnGalvin, A. (2017). Quality of life in childhood, adolescence and adult food allergy: Patient and parent perspectives. Clinical and Experimental Allergy, 47(4), 530–539. https://doi.org/10.1111/cea.12849