Kids Take Control...of Food Allergies
As adults, it's our job to protect our kids. We dutifully plug outlets up with outlet protectors, put locks on our cupboard doors, and keep medications locked up tight and out of reach. We hold hands in stores and holler "Slides are for going DOWN!" the first dozen times our preschoolers try to scale them. We want to wrap our kids in a nice, safe bubble.
When kids have food allergies, we go into protective mode. Clear out the cupboards, purchase lunchboxes and stickers that read "Don't feed me, I have food allergies!", and sign up for medic-alert. We format letters for the school, for daycare, for playdates. But in the end, we can't be there twenty four hours a day to protect our kids. Eventually, they have to be out on their own.
It scares the heck out of us.
What Can We Do?
One of the best things we, as parents, can do for kids with food allergies is to give them some control. If we think it's scary to send our kids out each day, praying the phone won't ring with bad news, imagine how they feel. Bombarded with food and offers of food and party discussions at every turn. School, to kids, is all about the social scene, which centers on snacks and meals.
Kids need to understand their allergy in order to protect themselves. That means they need to know how to read labels, and how to make savvy decisions on a moment's notice. It doesn't matter how much info you put into an IEP or 504 plan, if there's a sub the day of a party and she misses the memo, your kid needs to know what to do.
Which leads us to a very complicated issue. Kids need to learn when to be rude. Kids with food allergies sometimes need to be rude to well meaning adults. If a child with food allergies is being pressured by an adult to eat a questionable food item, they need to say "I have severe food allergies." They need to know adults make mistakes. We are, after all, only human.
It's also important to address a child's real fears. They don't care about anaphylaxis or IgE cells or immune therapy. They care about what this diagnosis means for them. Specifically, they care about lunch time, birthday parties, and ice cream. Food is important to kids. It's a source of comfort, it's dependable, it's social and it's fun. They don't want to mess that up.
Kids can feel in control of their food allergies by helping to plan meals, and by being involved in birthday party decisions. They know what they like and will feel a lot better about their diagnosis (and a little more cooperative) if you start out by reassuring them that they can still eat some of their favorite foods or you'll help them find new favorites and alternatives.
Make sure that kids know a food allergy diagnosis isn't a barrier. They can still attend birthday parties, summer camp and scouting events. It just means that you need to plan ahead. And keep your kids involved in your plans. They know that they have special needs. They need to know you are advocating for them and what to expect when the food comes rolling out.
Have a back up plan. Whatever happens, have a back up plan. My food-allergic child knows that I can't catch every single party that comes along. But if I miss one, she generally gets a treat at home. And while she was in elementary school, there was a box of treats left in the classroom for emergency snacking. Not everyone needs a cupcake. But if everyone else is getting a cupcake and you're hungry, it's nice to know there's a box with cookies, crackers and candy you can turn to for a small treat.
The hardest part of parenting is always the letting go. But it may be even harder for food allergy parents. All kids eventually need to figure out their way in the world, and will learn a few lessons the hard way (like why fudge sauce makes a rotten breakfast and why we don't just toss their favorite white shirt in with the reds on laundry day). Food allergy kids have bigger stakes, though. If they blow off their allergy, or make a mistake, it could land them in the hospital or worse. We don't even want to acknowledge the 'worse'.
By preparing our kids now, when they are young, to read labels and be involved in planning accomodations we are teaching them how to live life with a food allergy. We teach them how to self-advocate because some day we won't be there to do it for them. We need to teach them how to plan for a party or social gathering because a time will come when we won't be there to grill the hostess in private beforehand, and quietly point out the safe dishes later. If they need an epi-pen, we make sure that carrying one is second nature because someday we won't be there to hand it over on the way out the door. If we teach them to take control now, as kids, and back them up, they can confidently grow into healthy, allergy-conscious teens and young adults who know how to manage their allergens without needing to worry about them. And as parents, hopefully it will be a little easier to let go and trust them to make good decisions, because we'll have been watching them make good decisions when it comes to food allergies all along.