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The Impact of Food Allergy on Parenting and Autonomy in Young Children


Important changes in autonomy and social skills take place in early childhood through the child's increasing independence and interaction with the environment. Parents play a crucial role in facilitating autonomy development by providing young children opportunities for independent activities and by helping them learn new skills and develop confidence in their ability to independently solve problems and regulate their emotions. Overly protective, controlling, or restrictive parenting interferes with autonomy development. Parents who are anxious and/or perceive their child to be vulnerable are at risk for more protective parenting. <P> Food allergy is a very common, potentially life-threatening disease that is typically diagnosed in the first two years of life. In order to prevent exposure to food allergens that could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction, parents must be vigilant about everything that their child eats and as a result, often severely restrict the child's activities outside the home. Food allergy also increases the likelihood of parental anxiety because of the unpredictability and uncontrollability of the child's exposure to allergens outside the home and the potential catastrophic consequences of such exposure. Elevated parental anxiety has been shown to be associated with more controlling and intrusive parenting. Moreover, because so many aspects of the food allergic child's daily life must be monitored and controlled, controlling and intrusive parenting may come to predominate the ways in which parents interact with their children and possibly interfere with the independent exploration necessary for autonomy development. <P> Thus, food allergy presents an opportunity to study naturally-occurring disruptions in developmentally relevant aspects of the lives of young children -- exposure to new environments, opportunities to socialize with peers, parental anxiety, and autonomy-promoting parenting practices. Using questionnaires, structured interviews, and structured observations of parent-child interactions, the proposed study compares 60, 3- to 5-year-old children with food allergy and their mothers with a comparison sample of healthy peers and their mothers in order to test 1) whether children with food allergy and their families have more restricted daily activities outside the home, fewer interactions with peers, and demonstrate less autonomy than healthy children; and 2) whether mothers of food allergic children report greater anxiety and show more protective parenting attitudes and behaviors during interactions that are unrelated to food than mothers of healthy children. <P> Theoretically relevant relations among parental anxiety, protective parenting, and child autonomy in preschool aged children will be examined. Regardless of the child's illness status, parental anxiety is expected to be related to protective parenting and to child autonomy, with protective parenting mediating the relation between anxiety and child autonomy. <P> The results are expected to identify areas of possible developmental risk in an understudied and growing population, children with food allergy as well as enhance understanding of parenting influences on child development in general. By studying a population at risk for restricted social activities and for the development of overprotective parenting, the psychological processes involved in autonomy development and in parental overprotection will be better understood. <P> Ultimately, the results have implications for the development of intervention programs for parents of children with food allergy and other health conditions who may be at risk for negative psychosocial outcomes.

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For additional information, including history, sub-projects, results and publications, if available, visit the <a href="; target="blank">Project Information web page</a> at the National Institutes of Health Research Portfolio Online Reporting Tool (RePORTER) database.

Dahlquist, Lynnda
University of Maryland - Baltimore County
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