Updated 31 May 2017

Kids with allergies may learn helplessness

Parents managing matters like their preschoolers' food allergies should also be aware of the need for their kids to learn independence.


Parents managing their preschoolers' food allergies should also be alert to the need for their kids to have chances to solve other kinds of problems, suggests a new study.

Developing independence

"I think the biggest take home message is to just be careful that you don't let the real need to supervise and keep your child safe interfere with letting your child develop independence," said Linda Dahlquist, who led the research.

About 4 percent of children in the US have life-threatening food allergies that require parents to constantly monitor what their children eat.

Read: Exposure to allergens may boost kids' immunity

Dahlquist, a psychology researcher at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and her colleagues looked at whether that high level of parental involvement might spill over into other areas and prevent kids from learning the skills to solve their own problems.

For their experiment, Dahlquist and her colleagues recruited 66 children with food allergies between the ages of three and six years old, 67 children of the same ages without food allergies as well as all of the children's mothers.

The researchers asked the children to work on two different puzzles – an easy age-appropriate puzzle with eight pieces and a difficult one with 41 pieces meant for older children.

The mothers were told to let the kids work on the puzzles by themselves, but they could provide help if their child asked. Meanwhile, the study team videotaped the children and their mothers to watch their interactions as the children worked on each puzzle for six minutes.

The authors found that 39 percent of the three- and four-year-olds with food allergies made indirect requests for help with the easy puzzle by telling their mothers the puzzle was too hard or that they couldn't do it.

Only 14 percent of the younger kids without food allergies made similar requests.

Mothers more likely to provide unnecessary help

In addition, the mothers of the young kids with food allergies were more likely to provide unnecessary help with the easy puzzles.

The researchers didn't see any differences in requests for help among the five- and six-year-olds with and without allergies.

There were also no differences between the groups of kids in the number of indirect requests for help with the more difficult puzzle or the number of direct requests for help for either puzzle, according to the results published in the Journal of Paediatric Psychology.

The authors suggest that the higher rate of indirect requests for help from the younger children with food allergies could reflect an early pattern of helplessness in problem solving.

"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," Dahlquist said.

"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."

Read: Eating more nuts may prevent allergies in kids

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.

Kids may fall behind

Dr. Peggy Scallon, a child and adolescent psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said that kids who don't develop a sense of autonomy may start to fall behind their peers, have lower self-esteem, strained relationships with family members and be more irritable and anxious.

"Parents should be aware of their child's ability and scaffold that child's skills in moving to the next level – they should be anticipating the next step in their independence," Scallon said.

"They should be reading the child's cues and then anticipating the next level of self-help skills and helping them prepare for that."

Scallon, who wasn't involved in the study, suggests speaking to the child's primary care doctor if parents have any concerns about their children's development.

Read: Kids raised on dairy farms have lower allergy risk

Dahlquist said that most child clinical physiologists would also be able to help evaluate the child and see if there are any concerns or if developmental progress is not being made.

Read More:

10% of city kids allergic to milk, eggs and peanuts
Blackboard chalk may spur allergies
US born kids have more allergies

Image: Mother blowing child's nose from Shutterstock.


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules