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Inquiry Note: Our 7 year old son Jacob has food allergies, FPIES and an autoimmune disease.  Jacob cannot eat alot of foods and his diet is very limited.  This has caused alot of frustration on all of us but especially on him.  When we eat, you can see the frustration on his face that he cannot eat what he wants.  He has had to give up alot of foods that he really enjoyed and has to watch his younger brother eat what he wants.  This has resulted in Jacob acting out and fighting with school and bedtime.  We are struggling to come up with new foods and meals for him and for our family.   Do you have any ideas about how to deal with his issues?  We try Love and Logic but are really struggling with it, can you help? 

Dear Kevin:

I appreciate your inquiry. I can understand how difficult it must be with Jacob at times. I'm sure he feels frustrated when he sees his brother eating foods that he cannot. It must be a struggle for you to come up with new foods and meals that suit him and the family day in and day out.

I hope the following thoughts will be helpful to you:

Because we love our children, it is understandable that sometimes their pain and frustration becomes reflected in us. When our dear children are going through difficult times or are frustrated about their situations, it is understandable for parents to overtly or covertly excuse the (mis)behavior because we sympathize with those issues.

It’s sort of like the mom who, when her child is disrespectful, obnoxious or non-cooperative, states to a friend, "Robert didn't get very much sleep last night so he’s pretty grumpy"- basically excusing Robert’s misbehavior and explaining it away while not holding him accountable; not realizing that she is setting into place a pattern that Robert may follow for a lifetime: “When I am tired, it’s okay to be grumpy and rude to those around me.”

Therefore, because Jacob has an issue that he must learn to live with and overcome, Love and Logic suggests giving him the "can-do" message. This involves letting your child know that he has problems that, when he overcomes them, will help him become an even better person. The attitude that you and your wife should express is not, therefore, one of sympathy about the situation when he expresses frustration but rather sorrow for him (empathy) that he is handling the situation poorly.

And, if the behavior continues, you respond to the situation by taking care of yourself. This means saying something along the lines, "Jacob, I don't mean to hurt your feelings but you're not very pleasant to be around right now. I would really appreciate it if you tried to pull yourself together someplace else. Thank you." (Make sure that you set the model/ example and remove your own self from the family when you are feeling grumpy and not behaving pleasantly!)

If this is not the way you’ve been operating in your home, it is a good idea for you to have a discussion with Jacob. So, first, I think it would be good for you and your wife to tell Jacob that you want to go over some very important things with him and you'd like to take him, without his brother, out for dinner on a particular evening. This sets the framework of expectation and will massively increase the attention he pays to what you have to say. He'll probably want to know what you want to talk about before the  dinner and you simply say, "I can understand your curiosity but it’s far too important to talk about before we meet."

So, Kevin, let's look at how something like this might actually sound if you and your wife felt comfortable pulling it off and if it fits your style. The following of course, is very abbreviated so you would want to handle it in a way that best fits your situation and expand or delete some of it.

The talk that you have with Jacob might sound something like this:

 “As you probably know, Jacob, you are a very special child. And you have been given a very special gift from God. That gift is your food allergies. Every day you have the gift of seeing things that you'd like to eat but can't eat. And you don't eat that food because you know it would make your allergies worse. What this gift does is build your self-discipline. It is something that many children don't have. And of course, when you can eat things the other kids eat at school, at your age, they could give you a hard time for being different. This, too, is a very good thing because everyone who turns out to be a leader has important differences from the group that ends up following them.

As we have studied history, we have realized that many great men and women who made a big difference in the world grew up with a special problem that God gave them in childhood. One of our greatest presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, was a very sick child. Another great president, Franklin Roosevelt, had polio and was paralyzed. Albert Einstein had learning problems when he was a kid. We could go on and on about how many great people improve themselves by overcoming the difficulties they had in childhood. You might want to study some of those people yourself, Jacob.

Now, Jacob, comes the important part for you to think about. When God gives people a special gift, some use the gift and become stronger. Some handle the gift poorly and they have trouble relating to others, trouble in school and go around feeling frustrated a lot. So the outcome of the gift can go either way.

Jacob, the gift that people have to overcome reminds me of the fire that turns iron into steel for samurai swords. When iron gets very hot, it can either turn into steel or it can become brittle and break. Mom and I are curious to see if you will become brittle and break or if you become something special like samurai steel. It's all up to you."

The talk should not sound like a lecture, but at the same time wise parents don't let the child distract them with a lot of, "yeah buts,” disagreements, or arguments. And, needless to say, this entire talk is actually an attitude vibrated off by parents that live the attitude day in and day out. The attitude is more important than the exact words.

Again I want to emphasize two important aspects of this. First, the parents are very loving but not particularly accepting of the frustration and attitude problems that the child has around his illness, but instead simply show some disappointment for him. And vibrate out, "Gee, the way you're acting now kind of surprises me because I always expected you to be the type of kid who could handle it.

Secondly, it is absolutely imperative that the child overtly be given the choice of how he handles his problem. He can either grow from it and become a much better person because of it or he can handle it poorly. And you would be interested to see which way he chooses.

I hope this is helpful to you, Kevin. Good luck with your son.

Dr. Foster Cline

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Many of these concepts are from the award-winning book “Parenting Children with Health Issues"by Foster W. Cline M.D, child psychiatrist and co-founder of Love and Logic, and Lisa C. Greene, mom of two kids with cystic fibrosis and parent educator. Visit www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com 

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