By Kristen Chandler
When my youngest child was a toddler, she would ask almost anyone she met, “What are you allergic to?” My children, now 10, 8 and 6, have pretty much grown up around allergies, with all of them being allergic to something and their allergies being discovered at a young age. For a while, they thought that people who didn’t have allergies were different and that allergies were common. As they got older, they learned it was actually the opposite.
It’s hard to go anywhere with three small children, and even harder when they all have food allergies. We didn’t go places often at first. But once my son started school and the girls went to daycare, I had to release some of the protection I had over them and depend on someone else to do it. But on our food allergy journey, I’ve learned that just because someone is AWARE of your child’s food allergies doesn’t necessarily mean they UNDERSTAND them.
Person: “Oh, he’s allergic to milk and eggs? So no milk, cheese, ice cream or eggs, and he can have anything else, right?”
Me: “He’s also allergic to beef. So he can’t have milk, beef or eggs, OR anything that contains those foods.”
And that’s when they get the confused look on their face.
One of my daughters is allergic to vinegar.
Person: “Vinegar isn’t really in anything, is it?”
Me: “Pickles, ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, vinegar based salad dressings, anything pickled…..”
I knew I couldn’t be with my kids 24/7, and I learned early on that unless someone deals with food allergies on a daily basis, they will never be as cautious as I am when dealing with them. I also learned the importance of teaching my kids at a young age how to manage their food allergies and how to advocate for themselves.
Here are some tips you can follow to help your child become his/her own FA advocate.
- Talk to them. Any time, all the time. Repetition is the main way that small kids learn, so the more you bring it up and talk to them about it, the more likely it is to stick with them. Likewise, the more you talk to them about it, they’re more likely to talk to others about it.
- Teach them to read labels. We all know how important label reading is. There are hidden ingredients in everything. Food you wouldn’t expect to contain an allergen contains an allergen. And then you have the additional “may contain” warning to worry about. As soon as my kids were able to read, I started showing them how to read labels. I would “test” them. I’d hand them a box and say “Okay, read the label and tell me if you can have this.”
- Make up scenarios. Give them an example of something that could happen, and talk them through how to deal with it. Explain to them that everyone won’t understand their allergies and everyone won’t accommodate their allergies. Most will, but you will run into some instances (eating out, public events) where people just won’t accommodate. They need to be prepared on how to deal with that.
- Less isn’t better where food allergies are concerned. Give them all the details. Explain what an anaphylactic reaction looks and feels like. Tell them all the steps that will be taken should they have an anaphylactic reaction. Then, tell them to tell others about it. Even the people who think they know about food allergies sometimes still don’t understand the severity of life-threatening food allergies. They think the worst scenario is looking like Will Smith in “Hitch.” If your child says something like, “If I eat even one bite of that cookie, my throat could close up and I could die,” it will be taken more seriously than if they just simply say, “I can’t have that, I’m allergic.”
- Be their example. Kids watch, listen and learn. They mimic everything you do. Read labels in front of them, include them when you cook their safe food, and talk openly to other people about their allergies in front of them. They will do the same.