“Katie, calm down. She didn’t eat any of it. It’s really not a big deal.”
We were at a family gathering and my daughter had her own safe meal. However, my toddler, fast as lightning, reached over and grabbed food off of another child’s plate.
I was concerned about possible cross-contact with her allergens based on what the other child was eating and took the food out of my daughter’s hands.
Quickly, I washed her hands and explained to her once again why we don’t grab food off other people’s plates. That’s when the above comment was said to me.
I heard the sarcastic tone clothed thinly under a layer of humor. I saw the eye roll flutter. Their intent to get me to “calm down” was not positively received.
After running that situation through my head quite a few times, I just don’t see how I overreacted. There was no yelling at my daughter, no embarrassing shame tactics, nor was I angry or physically aggressive.
In fact, the entire situation happened so quickly and subtly that there were probably only two people that actually saw what had taken place.
Trigger Warning: This post explores examples of verbal and emotional abuse as it pertains to our experiences. Please use caution. If you feel triggered while reading this, please be kind to yourself and exercise self-care before going further.
My Safety Concerns Are Not Imaginary
That was just one comment in a series of comments that have insinuated I am overprotective and overreacting when parenting my oldest child with food allergies.
“Katie, you embellish a lot. You don’t relax. When she’s a teenager, she’s really going to hate that you do that.”
OUCH. Sometimes, people really knows how to drive the knife in hard. Now, don’t get me wrong. I do think we sometimes need to be told hard things about ourselves in order to change any negative behaviors and unhealthy thought patterns.
But gently redirecting my daughter and having very firm safety rules concerning food isn’t one of those times.
So I choose to reject those shame tactics, rude comments, and lies about how my daughter one day might view me.
However well intentioned these comments have been, they have been hurtful to me. I want to hold space for the fact that unless you live with the reality of food allergies, it’s hard to understand. You can’t know what you don’t know.
Sure, it still hurts, but dwelling on words that were uttered from people who truly don’t understand doesn’t help me be the best version of me for my family.
Because here is the honest TRUTH.
My daily reality is that my daughter has life-threatening allergies to certain foods. If she consumes her allergen directly, or indirectly through cross-contact, there is a risk of death.
I don’t say that to be morbid, nor am I “embellishing” the seriousness of her medical condition.
Our family tries very hard to not operate out of a place of intense terror, but we’d be lying if we said that fear doesn’t somehow rear its ugly head at some point every day.
Because we have to feed our children multiple times a day, the threat of an allergic reaction is always present in the back of our minds.
So, yes, it may have appeared that I was overreacting to someone that doesn’t have to constantly weigh the potential consequences of whether or not their bodies will start to shut down after taking a bite of a particular food.
When I feel labeled as “overprotective,” I revisit a quote that Lauren came across on Instagram from @livingallergic.
“I am not a helicopter parent. I am a parent who sets and enforces age appropriate boundaries for my child. I allow my child to make age appropriate decisions with age appropriate consequences.
These boundaries look different, because everyday foods that are safe for most children are a matter of life and death for mine. Decisions that have life and death consequences are not age appropriate for a small child. Decisions that have medical consequences are not age appropriate for a small child.”@livingallergic
This. Everything that she just said. She absolutely nailed it.
Food allergy parents are not being overprotective or acting like helicopter parents.
They are trying to keep their kids safe while always being aware of the potential danger around food.
Pretend that your house is located in the middle of a highway (I know, I know, unrealistic, but let’s roll with it for a minute). For the sake of this analogy, your house was built right between north and south bound traffic lanes.
The speed limit is 75 miles per hour and cars are flying by 24 hours a day, every day, around all sides of your home.
Your family has a small child. Every time you leave your home, you have to carefully load that child into your vehicle. Cars are zooming by, horns blaring, lights flashing, and you can feel the heat of the engines as they pass just a few feet away.
You and your child are in a dangerous situation every time you leave your home. You are very aware and on guard so that you can react on your child’s behalf if a car veers too close.
That’s what it feels like for some food allergy families when they have to constantly navigate food safely.
It is SO much more than simply not feeding a child that food. Food is social. It appears in just about every social context. Which means food allergy families have to navigate food safety basically in every context.
You are not overreacting.
What About You?
Have you been in my shoes too? Maybe someone voiced their disapproval of your parenting or in how your family chooses to handle food allergies?
Or perhaps you’ve been told that you’re a helicopter parent or too “uptight” about your concerns?
Sadly, I hear these types of subtle judgments and accusations sometimes from strangers, but I mostly hear them at family functions or from people that I thought were my friends.
And honestly, I think it hurts more because those people are supposed to be in our inner circle of trust and support. It feels a bit like a betrayal of sorts.
The words sting because the underlying intention behind the words is to pass judgment in some form.
Really, it doesn’t take a lot of self-control to keep such thoughts inside one’s head, so the choice to voice their opinions is because they truly do want us to hear them.
And if there is one thing that I can no longer tolerate in my life, it’s people that have a pattern of behavior in using opinionated words to shame, judge, and humiliate me.
And It’s Not Just Me
Lately, I have read some terrible and heartbreaking stories from other food allergy mothers in my online support groups.
Stories about families accusing them of making up their child’s allergen for attention, or telling the moms that they are overprotective, or a “helicopter” mom.
Those are horrible things to say to any parent, but especially to a food allergy parent juggling legitimate medical safety issues.
So, if you are a food allergy parent, and you’ve been told that you’re “overreactive” about food safety, then I want to validate your feelings and emotions.
Again, you are not overreacting.
Understanding Our Physical and Emotional Reactions
There are several things that were helpful to know about my reactions in specific settings or situations. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well.
My counselor always reminds me, “Katie, trauma resurfaces as a reaction, not a memory.” And boy, is that so very true.
If you follow our blog posts, then you know my personal story about medical trauma. You can read it HERE. You might want to grab a tissue box first.
Basically, any time I experience a food allergy scare, my adrenaline starts pumping and the fear resurfaces before I can cognitively understand what is happening inside my body.
Our Responses are Based on 3 Things
First, The Emotions
In what is literally a period of milliseconds, our brains can determine if a situation feels unsafe.
When my daughter grabbed that food off another child’s plate, warning bells started going off in my head. I instantly felt scared, threatened, and like I was losing control.
Next, There’s the Thoughts We Land On
Those intense feelings suddenly can turn into a landslide of overwhelming thoughts. Some of our thoughts are logical, but some might be more from a place of panic.
For example, when I saw my daughter grab that food off another child’s plate, I immediately thought:
- “That’s not her safe food.”
- “I don’t know what ingredients are in that food.”
- “She cannot eat that.”
- “She could die if it has her allergen.”
- “I have to take that away.”
Lastly, We React Physically or Emotionally
After processing through all of that in a split second, our bodies then react.
Check out this article from Pressconnects about understanding a bit of the psychology behind people’s reactions to certain triggers.
The way I dealt with the threat to my daughter’s well being was to reach over very quickly and pull the food out of her little hands. The phrase “it happened before I knew it” is all too fitting for what occurred.
To an outsider, they might see my reaction as an overreaction. What they don’t understand is that my body remembered past life-threatening trauma I had endured and deemed the new situation as a similar threat.
In less than a few seconds, my body felt scared, assessed a threat, reasoned potential consequences, and then responded.
And I’m not apologizing for how I reacted.
Now, if I had screamed at my daughter, or aggressively knocked the food out of her hand, then I would have something to feel sorry about. I would have had to apologize for not handling that situation in a way that honored my daughter’s personal feelings and experience.
So when we have those occasional experiences when someone says we are overreacting, it is helpful to have the above framework of information.
We need to understand what is happening inside our bodies on a biological level so we don’t internalize the shame spoken over us, or worse, shame ourselves.
But what about those people in our lives that say we are “overreacting” or “just too overprotective” continually or nonstop?
If you are often hearing that accusation from someone you are close to, I want you to stop and recognize that it is actually a form of denial. And it is a powerful tool used to diminish others’ feelings and behaviors, whether intentional or not.
Denial: A Subtle Tactic
There are many situations in which someone might say very insensitive comments to us concerning food allergies. They may not have any background knowledge about food allergies or understand what we go through on a daily basis.
It’s still unpleasant, but I tend to be more understanding towards these types of individuals. Honestly, I used to be one of those people that didn’t understand a single thing about food allergies (I’d like to think I’m not as rude though).
Conversely, there are some people that display tangible toxic behaviors or patterns with their actions and words towards us.
We can typically recognize these types of people after having spent an extended amount of time with them. In short, we get to see their true colors in a way that acquaintances or strangers may not.
If you read our weekly blog posts, then you already know that Lauren and I are avid supporters of therapy. We have both benefited greatly from it.
One particular issue that I have had to continually address in my own therapy journey has been my struggle to identify situations in which I was a victim of gaslighting from someone close to me.
What is Gaslighting?
I think culturally, the term gaslighting is being used very casually and often, incorrectly. So it’s important to define what it is.
Here is a definition from Very Well Mind. “Gaslighting is a psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that caused the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories…” — Merriam-Webster
One way this can occur is when someone else weaponizes denial to consistently belittle another person by saying that what they are feeling isn’t really true, or that their actions are essentially “crazy.”
For example, it’s been said to me, “Are you sure they really reacted? I’ve never seen an issue.”
Or, “I know someone whose child had lots of food allergies and they don’t take it as seriously as you guys do. You should probably think about that.”
In short, gaslighting is essentially downplaying (or flat out denying) another human being’s legitimate experience and emotions. And the impact of this type of emotional turmoil can be massive.
My family has been living with the medical impact of food allergies for four years. When we’ve opened up to extended family or friends, and chose to share our emotions or thoughts, we have many times been met with responses that diminish or deny our experiences.
Comments such as:
- Way to overthink it…
- Wow, you’re overreacting…
- It’s all in your head….
- Well, it sounds like you need to have faith…
- You really like to embellish…
- I think you remembered that wrong…
- Are you sure you’re not exaggerating…
- You’re making a big deal out of this…
- It’s not the end of the world…
- Nothing bad has happened so…
- It’s not as bad as what I’ve had to deal with…
At first, my husband and I could not recognize those comments as a subtle form of emotional abuse, but we still knew in our gut that the comments were intended to show disproval of our emotions and actions.
In reality, these statements were actually telling us to not believe our own feelings and that our body’s responses to what we were going through were actually lies.
It Really Impacted Us
Before we had the knowledge of what type of emotional/verbal abuse this was, we started to think that we really were overreacting. We trusted our close family and friends, so they must have been saying these hurtful things because we really were being “too intense,” right?
We didn’t know anyone else living with food allergies. Our own experiences suddenly felt incredibly isolating and possibly incorrect. There was no one we could turn to that could tell us, “I get it. What you are living is hard and the danger is very real. Your emotions and fears are valid. We often feel that way too.”
Subsequently, after years of hearing comments full of denial about our legitimate experience, we really struggled with our self-confidence (especially me). We really did think that we were overprotective, or even potentially bad parents.
Regretfully, I wish we could turn back and confidently reclaim that lost time. I wish I could reassure the old me that I was doing a great job. I’d remind her that other people don’t get to decide her feelings and identity.
Alas, that isn’t a feasible option for me. BUT that’s why I’m writing this blog post. It’s for you, sweet momma. Don’t make the same mistake I did. Other people’s words and opinions on how you parent are not a tangilbe part of your identity.
Just a loving reminder: I am not a licensed doctor or therapist. I’m sharing my experience of what I have learned. I don’t profess to have any specialized training. If you think you need to talk to someone about whether or not you’ve experienced continual emotional abuse from friends, family, or even coworkers, give yourself permission to reach out to a licensed counselor that could assist you in your healing journey. <3
Addressing Denial Spoken Over You
1. Consider Seeking Professional Help
I knew that my anxiety and feelings around food allergies needed to be addressed. Our family needed more support than anyone in our extended family could understand.
I truly believe that my choice to reach out to a licensed therapist was the best decision I have ever made to care for my family. It has helped me grow as a person and empowered me to cultivate our life choices in ways that have been life giving.
A Great Resource: If you are struggling with overwhelming feelings about food allergies or wonder how to interact with others concerning food safety, Food Allergy Counselor is a wonderful resource. These are trained counselors that specialize in this type of dynamic. Check them out here.
2. Set Physical and Emotional Boundaries
After seeking out therapy, and doing a great deal of studying, my husband and I can now identify people who continually engage us with words and behaviors that feel unsafe.
So we set firm emotional and physical boundaries with those people.
Our thoughts and our feelings are like precious pearls. Our feelings are not “right” or “wrong” and cannot be argued with. They just are what they are; they’re a beautiful part of our own experience.
If someone tramples on those pearls, then we learn to no longer offer those valuable pieces of ourselves to them.
I now actively protect my heart (and my family) by implementing boundaries on when and how I will interact with those people.
For example, with individuals that are verbally harsh with me, I know I can usually only be around them every few months for 2 hours at max. But depending on the level of harm they are capable of causing to me or my family, that time might actually be zilch.
And we should make no apologies for protecting our emotional and mental health.
We See You, Momma
Life can throw so much at us, especially once you become a parent. Adding food allergies as a part of the mix can sometimes feel debilitating.
You are not alone in this journey because we are walking it with you.
You are not overreacting, nor are you “too intense” about keeping your child with food allergies safe. This is hard, but you’ve got this. Keep pressing on, beloved.
What to read next, “A Food Allergy Mom is Always On”