Ask An Expert / Parenting Challenges

My son had an allergic reaction to peanuts and now he will only eat a few foods. What can I do to get him to eat?

Try working with a psychologist and an allergist

Jerry Bubrick, PhD
Jerry Bubrick, PhD

Senior Director, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My son had a severe allergic reaction to peanuts over five years ago, and none since. However, he continues to put extreme restrictions on his diet and eats only about ten foods and not much of them. What can I do to get him to eat? I'm worried that's why he has only grown two inches in two years.

It’s pretty common for kids to fear medical reactions, especially if they’ve already experienced a scary medical reaction in the past. It sounds like your son is trying to contain his fears by controlling what he eats. He knows those ten foods won’t give him a reaction, but what if the eleventh does? Sticking to a small range of food helps assuage his anxiety, but it also severely limits his diet in a way that isn’t practical.

Treatment should come in a couple of steps. First, your son should work with a psychologist to learn what a normal (but still concerned) reaction is and what an excessive reaction is, and how both of these reactions can affect his life. We want to help your son learn to handle his worries in a healthy way. His psychologist can help him practice having healthy reactions.

This goes hand in hand with the other goal of treatment, which is to make your son more open-minded about food. One way to start this process is by working with an allergist. You can ask the allergist for two lists, one containing foods that your son is approved to eat and one with foods that he should avoid. You can then bring the list of approved foods to his psychologist, who can help your son learn to eat those foods without worry. Another good idea is to come up with a plan of action detailing how to handle a medical reaction if one comes up. Just knowing that there’s a plan can help your son feel more secure.

Finally, it’s also important for family members to model healthy reactions to potential allergens. If your son sees the people around him becoming very upset at the idea of nuts being on a sandwich, that heightened reaction can reinforce his anxiety. Your son’s therapist should also be sharing tips for family members on healthy ways for them to react to food, too.