For preteens and teens, having asthma (and using an inhaler) can be downright embarrassing. TV shows and movies that depict children with asthma as being weak and vulnerable only perpetuate the stigma and make things worse.
According to research published in the Journal of Medical Anthropology Quarterly. asthma has been systematically stigmatized in Hollywood films, often showing children with asthma as the butt of a joke. I saw this stereotype first-hand in a cartoon aired on a popular children’s TV network.
For parents of children with asthma, this can be downright maddening. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively deal with this. Here are four ways to help your child cope:
1. Keep your child from feeling different or singled out.
Preventing every instance of feeling different or singled out can be nearly impossible, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t limit those interactions. It’s really important to talk with your child to determine if there are things going on at school that are embarrassing to him or her.
For example, my kids do not want to be singled out when they need to go to the nurse for a breathing treatment. Their teachers have worked it out so that they can walk to the nurse’s office themselves before physical education class instead of having it announced in front of the class every time.
My children are also old enough to carry their own medication so they can use it quickly in the restroom or other out-of-the-way place without getting in trouble. Be sure that you have the proper forms in place for your child to carry and administer his or her own medication.
2. Remind your child that many other children have asthma.
Sometimes it is easy to feel like you are the only one who is dealing with a chronic medical condition, but in actuality there are 7 million children in the United States who have asthma.
Explaining to your child the prevalence of asthma may make him or her feel less alone. You could even check with your friends to see if any of them have a child with asthma who might be willing to be “pen pals” or “text pals,” as the case may be. That can also help your preteen or teen feel much less isolated. If you live in a larger city it may also be possible to find a support group to attend.
3. Talk to your school counselor about having a chronic illness group meeting.
One thing that I had never considered until my girls’ school nurse pointed it out was to check with the resources in the school’s counseling office. Our school’s counselor actually holds lunch meetings with students who need a little extra support (for example, he meets with a group of kids whose parents are going through divorce). When we broached the subject with our counselor last year he actually volunteered to start a lunch meeting this coming school year just for students who are dealing with chronic illness.
The kids may not all have asthma (some have diabetes, for example), but it will be nice for my gals to see that they are not the only ones who have to face medical problems at school.
4. Mention the number of professional athletes and Olympians who have asthma.
Now this may sound a little cheesy, but I promise — even if you get a few eye rolls from your preteen — it is encouraging to know that even with asthma you can excel in sports.
Professional football star Jerome Bettis was diagnosed with asthma at the age of 15, and yet he excelled for years as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015. One of the greatest divers of all time, Greg Louganis, had asthma as a child. All-star track athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee medaled four times in the Olympics once she learned how to manage her own asthma.
Asthma doesn’t have to hold your child back from doing amazing things when it comes to sports. But it’s important to work with your child’s pediatrician and specialist to find out how to get his or her asthma under control and then determine how to best manage the condition during the sports season.
The bottom line
Maybe someday we won’t see those horrible stereotypes of people with asthma as being weak or nerdy. But until then it is up to us as parents to give our children every opportunity possible. That means ensuring that they know that stereotypes are simply a form of ignorance, and they can do anything that they want to and set their mind to doing.
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Jennifer Rackley is a nutritionist and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.