Having celiac disease or a food allergy as a child can be tough. Naturally, there will be times where they are left out because they can’t eat the same foods or partake in the same activities as other kids, and in some cases that can lead to depression and sadness. As parents, it’s so important to learn how to recognize those feelings in your child and help them develop positive coping strategies. Here are four stigma reducing strategies that have worked for us.
Alternatives to Food
Educate yourself and your child about food alternatives that are safe. Having alternatives to popular foods your child will see others eating will make them feel less left out. Educate them that there are alternatives so that when they see something they’d like to try, to tell you so that you can prepare one that is safe for them. Knowing that they can come to you, not only creates trust with your child but also reduces their urge to try other people’s snacks because they know they can get one later that won’t make them sick.
Practice what to say when someone offers to share a snack or asks them why they can’t eat what others are eating. Good examples include “Gluten makes me feel sick so I don’t eat it” or “I feel healthier when I don’t eat gluten.”
Another good skill to teach children with celiac disease or food allergies is assertiveness. Help them learn to say “no thank you” to unsafe foods, as well as feel confident asking someone what the ingredients are. For young children, I don’t encourage accepting treats after asking about ingredients because the other children often don’t know what the ingredients are…of course an exception here would be the child’s teacher who has hopefully been educated by you before the school year starts.
Remind them that we’re all different – no two people are exactly the same and that’s what makes us special and unique. Give examples – hair and eye color, height, different food allergies in others, some are fast, some are slow. Tell them how many other people have food allergies and that they can still have fun with friends and food.
Encourage a positive relationship with food
Anxiety and fears toward food can develop when children have celiac disease or other food allergies. In our experience, the best way to do this is to cook with them in the kitchen making healthy meals and sugary treats on occasion. I also encourage taking them grocery shopping to places that have a lot of gluten free or allergy friendly options, and letting them get excited (like any other child would) about picking out a new snack or food to try.
Manage your own anxiety
Children are like sponges and they pick up on anxiety. If you as a parent or caretaker are having difficulty controlling your own anxiety, seek support from family, celiac or allergy support groups, or speak to a professional. There is no shame in experiencing feelings of anxiety, but the real strength is recognizing it so that you can develop positive coping strategies and move past it.