Learning that your child has food allergies can be very stressful. The fact that something so natural and essential to human existence— food—is also toxic to your child may seem unreal. Parents of food allergic children often find themselves on a steep learning curve, trying to figure out what is safe to eat and what should be avoided. Finding ways to prevent cross contamination, and potential exposure when eating out and at social gatherings. Managing children’s allergies at school and during after school activities, and all the little things parents of children without food allergies generally take for granted. Carelessness can lead to accidental exposure and otherwise endanger food allergic kids. The responsibility can be difficult. And even more so when other parents, adults and kids do not take the food allergy seriously. But some parents may find the biggest challenge to be when the people who refuse to acknowledge the seriousness of children’s food allergies are members of their own family. While at some level parents of children with food allergies might expect that “other people” may not take food allergies seriously, they generally do not expect carelessness from family members. And when it happens, it can feel like a betrayal and could potentially lead to family conflict about food allergies.
Mitigating Food Allergy Conflicts With Family
Family conflict about food allergies can be infuriating and exhausting. Emotions often run high and guards are let down. Who else knows how to push our buttons better than our own families? Generally, no one wants to experience rifts caused by food allergy conflicts, which become so deep that family members argue whenever they’re together or, worse, don’t communicate at all. When dealing with relatives who “just don’t get it,” it could help to remain calm and consider the following suggestions.
First and foremost, it is important to try to resist the urge to respond angrily to transgressions. Family members may not understand the seriousness of food allergies and the potentially disastrous results. Instead of getting angry, educate.
A key to alleviating the potential for blow outs over food at family functions is educating family members about food allergies and impressing upon them that this is not about “helicopter parenting,” but an actual physical condition. This might seem like common sense, but for many people who don’t suffer from food allergies, the idea that food is dangerous can sound far-fetched. For many, the sudden rise in food allergic people is unfathomable. For starters, the number of people with food allergies has increased more than 50 percent in the last 20 years. Currently, about 15 million Americans have a food allergy. About 6 million of those people are children under 18. The number of people hospitalized for allergy related issues tripled, and food allergy accounts for about 150-200 deaths annually. This sudden increase may leave many people erroneously believing the numbers are exaggerated. For them, food allergies barely existed 20 years ago and now they seem to be everywhere. Talk to them about the realities of food allergies and what your child’s food allergy means for your child, their young relative.
Explain cross contamination, what it is and how to prevent it. Give them strategies to manage their food preparation practices so they are not left to figure it out on their own. Helping with suggestions can eliminate some of the anticipated difficulty and replace it with the notion that food prep can still be easy and safe.
Remind family members of the dangers of leaving food laying around. An analogy might make the difference in understanding. For example, let them know that leaving nuts laying out around a toddler who is allergic is like leaving household cleaning supplies out, unmonitored and within that toddler’s reach.
Let your relatives know which foods are safe and which to avoid, including processed foods that contain the unsafe food. While family members may remember that little Johnny is allergic to peanuts, and thus keep the peanuts out of sight and reach, they may not consider other potentially dangerous items. They may be unaware, or forget, that candy bars that contain nuts or are manufactured in a facility that also manufactures nut products could also be dangerous. People learn through repetition. It can be helpful to continually communicate and give reminders over time for true behavioral change to occur.
Try to be flexible when you can and ask for flexibility in return. In many cultures and individual families, food is often connected to tradition and emotion, especially around certain events and the holidays. Some families also may equate food—preparing, sharing and eating it—with love. It can be hard for some family members, or families as a whole, to do what they may perceive as deviating from traditions unnecessarily for one person. Relatives may have expressed resentment and might even ask, “Why does EVERYONE else have to adjust? Why can’t the child with the allergy make the change?” Try to work together to develop strategies that allow for the tradition, but are also safe for your child.
Managing family conflict about food allergies can be tricky, but education, communication and collaboration may help tremendously to get relatives on board, keep traditions intact and keep your child safe at family functions.
Have you experienced conflict with relatives about food allergies? Tried any strategies to eliminate conflict that may or may not have worked in your family? Please share your experiences with us in the comments below.