Helping Kids with Food Allergies Build Self-Esteem
by Tamara Hubbard, MA, LCPC
We're all familiar with the term self-esteem, but it can be hard to describe it in a concrete manner.
In the simplest of terms, self-esteem is a positive sense of self. Having self-esteem often fuels confidence, pride, belief in self, a sense of belonging, and a positive self-image. Kids with poor self-esteem tend to be more self-critical, focus on perceived failures, doubt their abilities, and believe they don't measure up to their peers.
Per psychologist Dr. Paul Foxman, we develop self-esteem in two ways:
- Positive input from primary caregivers that is then internalized
- Experiences of success, mastery and competency
The first point probably seems like common sense. When parents and caregivers acknowledge and celebrate a child's accomplishments, as well as their values and choices, it helps the development of positive self-talk within the child.
At first glance, the second point may also seem like common sense, but let's dig a little deeper to explore how parental fear may inadvertently become a factor in the development of a child's self-esteem relating to their ability to self-manage their food allergy.
TWO WAYS TO HELP KIDS DEVELOP FOOD ALLERGY-RELATED SELF-ESTEEM:
- Provide Opportunities to Learn Food Allergy Skills from a Young AgeBecause many kids are diagnosed with their food allergy at very young ages, the parents/caregivers are responsible for the child's safety. But when it comes to self-management of food allergies, kids need to begin learning these skills from a young age (in age-appropriate ways). Just as they learn developmental skills such as walking and talking, food allergy management skills should truly be taught as commonly as any other life skills parents teach their kids.
It may seem easier to do things for them as long as possible. Yoiu may choose to carry their epinephrine for them because they're a forgetful 9 year old. But all that does is deprive them of opportunities to master these skills and develop confidence, both which impact food allergy-related self-esteem. If you continue to do or complete tasks for them, they will simply end up being a 16-year-old that forgets their epinephrine.
Many times, when parents continue to do things for their kids instead of modeling and allowing for practice (which includes mistakes), it's either because they're uncomfortable relinquishing control, or because they're underestimating their child's abilities. These reasons tend to be fueled by the the fear of what will happen if you're not in charge of everything. If you find yourself resisting the idea of passing more food allergy responsibility over to your child, honestly ask yourself:
- Am I resisting due to my own fear of the "what ifs"?
- Do I believe my child is capable of learning to be responsible for their safety? If not, why?
- How can I learn to deal with potential mistakes, which are common when kids are learning new skills?
Focus on Strengths - Especially When Mistakes Are Made:
Sometimes, it's too easy to focus on what your child didn't do well. Phrases like "Don't do it like that" or "Just let me do it for you" roll off the tongue too easily for many parents, typically due to their own lack of patience or frustration tolerance. But the reality is that as kids are learning new skills, they're going to make mistakes and initially, may not accomplish these tasks very well.
Since one way kids develop good self-esteem is from positive input from parents/caregivers, it's important to focus on strengths whenever possible. That doesn't mean simply saying "Good job" or handing out tons of empty praise. Rather, focus on the process of their skill development, and compliment them on their efforts.
Maybe an elementary-aged child misses a key ingredient while learning to read labels. A response such as "I see you took your time reading that label, which is wonderful! But let's go back and read it together, just to be sure" would be interpreted more positively than one such as "You have to be sure to read labels better, or else you could have a reaction!" which may be fueled by the parent's own fear of "what if".
A high schooler may forget his epinephrine because he was rushing out the door to get to school. You could say "We've been telling you since you were little that you have to bring your epinephrine with you everywhere! Why can't you seem to remember that?!" or you could get the same underlying meaning across with a strengths-based message, such as "You're so great at remembering your football gear every day for practice after school. What can you do to remember your epinephrine like that daily?" Focus your responses on what they ARE doing well, or connect it with strengths of theirs that, when applied, may help them master their food allergy management skills.
Remember....kids that develop confidence in managing food allergies become adults who are able to navigate life with food allergies. The opportunities you allow and approach you take to teaching them food allergy management skills directly impacts their self-esteem and internal self-talk about their ability to handle food allergy-related situations.
About the Author:
Tamara Hubbard is a family therapy-trained Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) offering general counseling for teens, young adults, parents and families. She also specializes in helping those managing food allergy or health conditions navigate the emotional/social aspects. She is currently part of Gonski Counseling, a private practice in the Northern IL suburbs.
Tamara created the Food Allergy Counselor website, the Food Allergy Counselor Directory, and the food allergy mental health resource page to fill an unmet need within the food allergy community. A relationship builder at heart, Tamara is always looking for opportunities to help build and enhance alliances that lead to positive impacts for patients, communities, organizations.