Your gluten-free third-grader walks in the door and immediately bursts into tears. Someone brought cupcakes to celebrate a birthday at school and everyone got one but her. “No one will want to be my friend because I can’t eat gluten,” she says between sobs.
Moments like these can test the strongest resolve. You’re in growing company, however. Eight percent of children have food allergies, a figure that has risen 20 percent in the last 10 years. Many children today also have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, which tends to run in the family.
Some children must be on a special diet, such as the GAPS or ketogenic diet, that eliminates all sugar, grains, processed foods, and other staples of the American diet. While the health reasons for the diet may be obvious, a child’s emotional reaction can muddy the waters. Children may feel left out, angry, anxious, sad, or embarrassed, which can distress parents.
The solution? Model the attitude you wish to see in your child. Self-confidence, calmness, and a positive attitude are the approaches recommended by child psychologists.
The real experts, of course, are moms raising children with food allergies or intolerances. What follows are some of their tips.
What to do when your child with food allergies feels left out
- Validate. If your child feels the diet is unfair, or if she is sad, angry, or embarrassed, repeat back to her what she says and commiserate.
- Educate. Help your child make the connection between the offending food and the reaction. For some children, it’s easy because the reaction is swift and severe. For others, the reaction is delayed or not as clear, such as bedwetting, anxiety, or a rash that appears several days later. Education can help your child to see the consequences for himself.
- Praise. One mom whose daughter must be on a ketogenic (low-carb, high-fat) diet to control seizures frequently tells her daughter how she proud she is of her for following a diet most adults couldn’t.
- Treat. Making snacks for your child to bring to birthday parties and social gatherings is a fact of life. One mom buoyed the situation her child faced by making food that looked better than what the other children had.
- Model. If you suffer from an autoimmune disease, obesity, or other chronic health disorder due to your previous poor diet, use yourself as an example of the consequences of poor choices, and demonstrate how you can work your way back to good health eating the same diet as your child.
- Offer perspective. Most everyone struggles with something that makes them feel different. For some, it’s a food intolerance. For others, it may be asthma, behavioral issues, or another struggle your child doesn’t have. Perspective can help your child feel less different.
Hardships and the occasional meltdowns aside, managing food intolerances can teach children how their diet affects their health and how to better care for themselves, lessons that will serve them well as they become more independent in their teens.
And for children of a parent with an autoimmune disease or other chronic disorder, an immune-friendly diet can help prevent the development of autoimmune disease or an inflammatory disorder.