In Profile: Marté Matthews, MA, MFT
Consulting Family Therapist
Marté J. Matthews joined the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University in early Fall 2015 as the Consulting Family Therapist and is currently at the clinic on Monday and Friday mornings. She also has a private practice at the Child & Family Counseling Group in San Jose, where she is Clinical Director. The Center staff, patients, and parents have been delighted to have her as a vital resource and source of support. In this interview, Marté discusses her background, her thoughts on the psychological impact of food allergies on patients and families, and her role as a therapist in assisting with issues surrounding food allergies.
What is your Background?
I completed my Bachelor of Arts in Applied Behavioral Sciences at U.C. Davis and my Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, and became licensed as a marriage and family therapist in California. Before becoming a therapist, I was a health educator for 13 years on topics such as reproductive health, oncology, and nutrition.
What drew you to the Center and counseling about food allergy concerns?
As a child, I had numerous food and environmental allergies, with nearly 100 reactions on skin tests. Among foods, I was allergic to eggs and oranges. In addition to food allergies, I had eczema and asthma. Although allergy shots have helped, I continue to manage my environmental allergies daily. Among my immediate family and friends, there are many with food allergies, environmental allergies, or asthma. I learned about the Center through a friend, whose daughter was participating in a food allergy clinical trial. Having a child who was the same age as hers, I talked with her as a person who was familiar with the stresses of living with food allergies, a friend, and as a mother of a young child. When there was a need for a counselor at the Center, I enthusiastically applied for the position. I feel that my personal experiences enhance my insight into issues that the patients and the families face. I am very excited to be here.
What are the stresses and anxieties that patients and families with food allergies face?
As I have worked here, I’ve come to understand even more deeply about the problems these families face. Parents of children with food allergies are often vigilant and anxious about any situation where accidental exposure to allergens might occur. Parents in trying to protect their children often give up valuable opportunities for social events because of the stresses associated with foods at these events. According to some studies, children with food allergies are bullied at school at rates about double those of other kids. Another problem is that parents and kids experience a lot of frustration and confusion as they try to communicate about food allergy safety to their schools, other parents in the community, or at restaurants. During adolescence, teens may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors. With regard to food allergies, this might mean not carrying epinephrine or eating foods without being vigilant of cross-contamination. Among participants in clinical trials at the Center, children have been repeatedly warned against eating food allergens. Beginning to consume those foods can be really frightening, for kids as well as for parents.
How can counseling assist parents and families living with food allergies?
For families in the trials, I work with parents, children, and adult participants to help them cope with anxiety, perhaps about a food challenge or about a blood test. I can also help them defuse the power struggles or help with other issues that go along with being a family affected by food allergies. Sometimes I meet with families for just 5-10 minutes, but sometimes for more than an hour, depending on what is needed to help each family here at the clinic. I am also available for phone calls with adults. I’ve helped to develop information sheets that are available in the clinic for participants. For other families with food allergies and related concerns, I can help in several other ways:
- Manage fears and anxieties: I help parents learn to manage their fears and anxieties so that they can provide a consistent and soothing routine for their children. When parents remain calm, their children do a lot better. Children can learn ways to stay safe and face their anxieties.
- Head off power struggles: Families dealing with food allergies are often stressed and anxious, which makes it hard to focus and make good choices. As a therapist, I can help parents learn ways to handle power struggles and be really thoughtful and focused in solving the problems that arise between parents and children.
- Manage day-to-day challenges: Common everyday scenarios can pose significant challenges at home, school, travel, and social gatherings. Additional planning and preparing can help parents take on day-to-day challenges so the children can have ample opportunities to socialize with their peers.
- Advocate safety: I can help support parents and children as they learn to access resources and advocate for themselves in public settings such as schools and restaurants, or find alternatives that are safer. Children also need strategies on how to react effectively when they are bullied about their food allergies, to tell the difference between rudeness and bullying and to seek adult help to ensure their safety when they need to.
- Dietary vigilance: I can educate children to be vigilant in their food choices without being hypervigilant and eating an unnecessarily restrictive diet.
I’ve learned so much from the children, teens, and adult clinical trial participants as they have shared their experiences with me. I feel so lucky to be a part of the Center and to be able to contribute by offering my support services. One of my favorite joys of working here has been seeing children graduate from their studies and safely eating a food that they previously avoided for the first time…a bite of scrambled egg, a sip of milk, or a piece of candy. To see them eating a food safely and joyfully is an incredible sight.
Interview by Vanitha Sampath
Vanitha Sampath received her PhD in Nutrition from the University of California at Davis. At the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, as a medical writer and content manager, she enjoys being in the midst of groundbreaking research in asthma and allergy and is committed to communicating the scientific advances of the Center and spreading awareness of its mission and vision.