A recent Reuters article reported on a study published last month in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. The title of the article, “Young kids with food allergies may learn helplessness” piqued my interest. So, naturally, I took my calm, collected, non-reactionary self on over to the article and read it, gathering data in my head as I quietly argued with the report.
And then I read it again—in all, about four times—trying to make sense of the article. It appears the authors of the study are concerned that young kids with food allergies may be learning lifelong helplessness because the young children (ages 3 to 4) with food allergies indirectly asked for more help from their moms while doing a puzzle than their non-allergic peers.
At age three, when my son was doing puzzles, he often threw tantrums because he couldn’t get the piece in the right place. His face would turn red, he’d cry, and then he’d throw the offending piece across the room. Because he was three. And what does a puzzle have to do with being truly helpless anyway?
So, the study goes on to say that there seemed to be no difference in the older kids (ages 5 to 6) as to whether they asked their moms to help with the puzzle or not.
Which troubles me. Why, then, is this a story at all if the research doesn’t play out to the hypothesis or headline? In fact, what was the hypothesis that the study was based on?
The researcher who led the study, Linda Dahlquist, said to Reuters,
“We really need to be thinking about how to help give our kids the skills they need to be independent of their parents, and that’s true in any chronic illness. The challenge is how do we eventually get kids to the point where they can take care of themselves and their healthcare condition by themselves.”
Reuters goes on to report that:
Dahlquist cautioned that she doesn’t want to “over-conclude” from her results, adding that parents should just be alert to the potential for their allergic kids to have an issue with problem solving.
“(The findings) just suggest to me that process could be challenging and if parents could watch out for it ahead of time, maybe they would catch it early before it becomes problematic and just be sure their children get opportunities to try things on their own and really develop the confidence that comes from having some chances of failure and then succeeding,” Dahlquist told Reuters Health.
I’ve got my own findings. All anecdotal, of course, but they are fairly representative of the food-allergic world in general. That said, I’d like you to meet my friend Remmy. She represents every single kiddo I know that lives with food allergies. In 15 seconds, she gives you a beautiful idea of how our kids work.
Did you hear that? She protects herself, people! She does that because her parents trained her. They invested in her. And it likely took a ginormous effort on their part during her preschool years to get her to this point. Do you see what I’m saying?
Children ages three to four with food allergies likely have had at least one major reaction already in their little lives. What does that have to do with anything? Their entire lives are now set on a huge learning curve. One for their moms and one for them. As the parents learn and research, they spend an enormous amount of time training their own child to know how to handle a life or death situation. This is not the norm for many families with preschoolers.
Food allergic children learn at an early age to read labels and advocate for themselves. Even though he couldn’t quite read at age three, Zachary could look at a label and identify the words “peanuts,” “tree nuts,” and “eggs.” That took quite a bit of coaching and teamwork on our part. Teaching him to problem solve on his own at age three by reading labels for foods he’s allergic to has set him up to be more independent as he’s grown.
The study headline suggests that this may become a pattern of “helplessness”—but the research doesn’t bear this out. I’m not surprised by this and here’s why:
While kids are dependent to learn their very own life-saving skills when they are 2, 3, and 4, the parents that I know of food allergic children actually push their kids toward responsibility and independence from us sooner than most. Why is this? Because we know that as they grow, we won’t always be there to review labels or intervene for their safety sake, and that (usually) scares the bejeebers out of us. So, from the get go, we allergy parents have a long-range view of what our allergic child’s life will be like without us around.
Our children are constantly, from a very young age, excluded and/or required to advocate from themselves (or witness their parents advocating for them regularly). How many times have we heard, “Life isn’t fair, and these kids should learn that sooner or later?” So, they must hear it sooner, much sooner than a majority of their peers, and realize that they live in a hostile world that just doesn’t understand.
Here’s the deal, the food-allergic children were no different from their peers in requesting help as they got older. The idea of teamwork and parent/child learning together is likely not as emphasized at home. The parents are likely emphasizing autonomy, responsibility, and making good choices (for us, we’ve already been discussing with Zachary for years about how a kiss with a girl may be unsafe for him).
I’d love to learn the actual point of this study and why in the world reporting about it skews the entire story to make allergy parents to look like psychotic enablers. We’re all no different than our peers, we just have to teach our kids life safety lessons in a controlled environment sooner, and if that translates into the children needing help from us when they’re younger, so be it.
I can guarantee it won’t scar them. In fact, I would argue we’re preparing them for life.