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.
“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 U.S. have life-threatening food allergies that require parents to constantly monitor what their children eat.
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.
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 Pediatric 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.”
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.
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.
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.