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Anxiety, Allergies, and Kids

anxiety, allergies and kidsWhen I went to school, my mother packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread for me. On some days, she’d switch to a couple of slices of bologna with mayonnaise—also on white bread. Cookies or an occasional apple finished off the meal. Packing food for lunch was pretty simple. We’d rush to long rows of tables when the bell rang, then stuff food into our mouths as fast as possible so that we’d have more time to play outside at recess.

Life has become more complicated for parents and kids. There are all sorts of dangers lurking out there, some real, others exaggerated, and some imagined. Food allergies appear to be the newest terror ready to pounce on unsuspecting children and their parents.

Food allergies can be potentially dangerous. Symptoms can include minor tingling sensations, hives, diarrhea, vomiting, and in rare instances, death. I usually go to the statistics found on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) for information about health in the United States. Here are some facts from their various reports:

  • Almost 4% of all children in the United States were reported to have an allergy to food. Note, this figure could be higher than reality because it is based on parental report rather than a medical diagnostic workup.
  • This number was defined by giving a yes answer to this question: “During the past 12 months, has (child) had any kind of food or digestive allergy?”
  • The rate of food allergies in children has increased by almost 20% in 10 years.
  • Kids with food allergies are more likely to have asthma or other allergies.
  • Most children in the past grew out of their food allergies.
  • Estimates range from 100 to 150 deaths in all age ranges (infants through adults)  from food allergies.
  • About 4,000 children and teens die each year in motor vehicle accidents.

The nut allergy epidemic has been described by Harvard scientist Nicholas Christakis, MD, Ph.D. as a sort of epidemic hysteria or mass psychogenic illness. What happens is that very rare instances of grave consequences (such as a child dying after breathing in peanut dust) are passed around the community. And frankly those stories scare the pants off of already worried parents. The results are such things as peanut free classrooms, schools, and even buses.

Dr. Christakis describes an incident on a school bus in which someone spotted an evil peanut, innocently resting on the floor. The children were evacuated and the bus was then cleaned. Yet, there is no evidence that peanut smell or karma somehow can find those vulnerable, allergic children and steal their breath away like a medieval witch. Children are at far greater risk of being hit by a car or getting a closed head injury out on the baseball field than getting sick or ill from food.

The latest fad appears to be gluten intolerance. Before I get anyone angry, I am not talking about children or adults who have been diagnosed by a medical professional and appropriate lab tests with celiac disease or peanut allergy. Celiac disease is quite real and very serious. Those with the disorder are at increased risk of eventually suffering cancer, diabetes, lupus, or multiple sclerosis. They must fight for the rest of their lives to keep all products containing gluten out of their diet.

But unlike celiac disease, the gluten intolerance diagnosis can’t be proven or disproven. Interestingly, this problem has expanded as the availability of high priced food items that contain no gluten have shown up on the grocery store shelves. Web sites, magazine articles, and television shows tell consumers of the benefits of giving up cakes, pasta, and bread (unless they happen to be the costly, specialized brands baked without gluten).

What is also interesting is that people who decrease their intake of a certain food group may feel temporary relief because of the placebo effect. Or they may feel better because they are paying attention to what they eat.  And as people decrease the intake of foods with gluten, their gut responds with less of the enzyme that breaks down gluten. Therefore, eliminating gluten from the diet will eventually make gluten more difficult to digest later.

I am not an expert on diet or allergies. I am a clinical psychologist who has treated many children with allergies because they are often very anxious. Parents come to me because their allergic child seems easily distractible, has difficulty concentrating, can’t seem to finish school work, and complains of aches and pains. Think about how much stress a child with an allergy can have.

The stress of not being the same as other children, of being afraid of eating the wrong thing, of sneaking a cookie, and possibly disappointing their parents can be quite overwhelming. Suddenly what was intolerance becomes a real disorder: Anxiety.

So parents, if you suspect that your child has an allergy. Make sure that you have a professional diagnosis. Talk to a registered dietitian about changes you need to make for your child. And don’t expose yourself or catch epidemic hysteria. Take care!

Photo by Steven Depolo, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Anxiety, Allergies, and Kids

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D.

Laura L. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of adults and children with obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as personality disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and learning disorders. Dr. Smith is a widely published author of articles and books to the profession and the public, including: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2E), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth, and Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be? Her website is:

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APA Reference
Smith, L. (2011). Anxiety, Allergies, and Kids. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Feb 2011
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