It’s difficult to care for a child with a severe allergy. Parents may feel helpless to keep their child safe, especially as he or she goes out of the carefully controlled home and into the wider world. Suddenly, they can’t be there to monitor every morsel; they have to put their child’s safety — and health — in the hands of people like teachers, coaches, and camp counselors.
But there’s a solution. While parents might feel helpless, they have to realize that their children are not: their children, the one with the severe allergy, needs to be empowered to cope with his or her condition. As much as you wish you could, you can’t watch over them forever. Eventually, kids grow up and out of the home, and kids with severe allergies are no exception. They need the tools to help avoid their allergens without adult supervision.
Here are some tips for raising self-sufficient food allergy kids, from parents who have been there.
As early as age 2, teach them not to eat anything without you seeing it first.
For most parents, this empowerment starts young.“By the time Haley was 2 years old, she knew she wasn’t able to eat anything without me seeing it first,” says Haley’s Mom, Heather. Most parents of severely allergic children take this crucial step.
If kids are too young to evaluate food on their own, they know not to accept it until mom or dad has inspected it first. They don’t take food from anyone but trusted caregivers — and that involves speaking up about their condition, even if that’s, “No thank you, my mom has to see it first.”
That empowerment is crucial, even in young children: it gives them the first beginnings of control over their condition.
Make sure your kids know there’s nothing to feel guilty about in speaking up about their allergy.
Kids need to know that they aren’t making trouble for other people by speaking up about their allergies. We’re socialized to think asking for some kind of “special” treatment is almost a “primadonna”-ish thing to do. But in order avoid their allergens, kids need to be comfortable in being assertive.
Practice running through different scenarios with your shy food allergy child.
You can help the shy child along by running scenarios, says Andrea, mom of a 4-year-old with a severe peanut allergy. “We work through scenarios: what if “so and so” says you can have this candy? What do you say?” This helps the child cultivate assertiveness.
Find ways to put your children (instead of yourself) in charge of their allergies.
This assertiveness continues as they get older. Christi says that her son Cameron, who has several severe allergies, is in charge of telling the waitstaff in the restaurant about his food issues. This puts Cameron, not his parents, in charge of his allergies. He’s the one taking charge and making sure he’s safe (with supervision, of course). This is a springboard to the things he’ll do when he’s older.
Teach your kids to check labels as soon as they begin to read.
As soon as a severely allergic child begins to read, it’s common for parents to teach them to read labels. Cameron, now that he’s a reader, is in charge of checking labels for his allergens. So is Melissa’s daughter, 12, who has a severe nut allergy. Melissa says that her daughter “knows how to check labels, knows what she’s allergic to, and knows her allergies well.”
So rather than always checking labels for severely allergic children, parents need to let go a little — at least enough to teach kids how to recognize their allergens on their own. Having charge of checking labels empowers kids to control their allergies, rather than be a passive patient.
Remind your children to withstand peer pressure.
Kids also need to learn, as Melissa says, that when asked about allergens, “I don’t think so” is not an acceptable response. Instead, her daughters learned to say, “No, thank you” to anything that has even of a chance of containing tree nuts.
It’s hard to get an impulsive teen or tween, who wants to fit in and please everyone, to go against the grain and turn down the snack everyone else is eating. Withstanding peer pressure is an important skill severe allergy kids need to learn if they’re to stay strong in managing their allergies.
Encourage your kids to plan ahead with parties and hangouts.
Christi and her son Kyle know that peer pressure works in other ways, too. “Group eatings and parties must be preplanned,” she says. They travel with their own food, including cake and pizza. “My kids love it when we show up with an allergen-free cake and snacks. It feels good to be included and not to feel different.”
While some hosts can be trusted to provide safe food, others can’t (and cross-contact may be an issue). Christi says they always call ahead and volunteer to bring allergy-friendly foods.
Kids need to take charge of their allergies. Even little ones can tell people they’re allergic and refuse food; older kids can read labels and bring their own snacks to events. It’s difficult to have a child with severe allergies, but your kid isn’t helpless — so neither are you.