By Kristen Chandler
Aside from being terrified that one of my children could have a severe allergic reaction at any time, I think the thing that scares me most about being a food allergy parent is giving up some of my control in managing my kids’ food allergies. When they were younger, I had all the control. I was the keeper of the epinephrine and Benadryl. My purse and their diaper bag were always stocked with safe treats. I went everywhere with them, and they received no food that was not inspected by me first.
It took a while for me to let my children go off with friends, or go anywhere really, whether it was a party, church event or school event, without me. But as they got older and we got busier, I realized that I could not be everywhere. And now that I have an ‘almost teenager’ and a pre-teen, I’m having to not only let them manage some of it on their own, but I must rely on them to. Yes, we’re very fortunate to have friends who are aware of my children’s allergies and help look out for them, especially when I’m not around. But the older they get, the more they are going to have to manage on their own. As much as I would love to, I can’t go off with them to college!
If you have teens or pre-teens or are even just preparing your younger ones for when they get older, here are a few tips to help enable your children to better manage their food allergies on their own as they get older.
- Start Them Early
The absolute best way to prepare children to manage their allergies on their own is to start preparing them while they are younger. Talk to them regularly about their allergies. Talk about what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. If they have never experienced a severe reaction, or are too young to remember the symptoms, remind them regularly of what an allergic reaction might feel like. Let them see you reading labels and include them so they know what to look for. Walk them through how to use their epinephrine auto-injector so they know how to use it on themselves or can explain to someone else how to use one. Practice using expired epinephrine injectors on apples. Children learn by observing, so while you are managing their food allergies, make sure they see you doing it, so they’ll learn too.
- Remind Them How Serious It Is
Peer pressure is already going to be an issue at this age. Kids need to understand that while they need to be able to speak up against all peer pressure and bullying, when their food allergies become part of it, it’s truly a life or death situation.
Remind them that anywhere they go, it is perfectly okay to say “no, thank you” when someone offers them food they’re unsure about. They can explain their food allergies, or not give an explanation at all. If they are keeping themselves safe, that is all that matters. Remind them that even though they may have gone several weeks, months, even years without a reaction, if they are allergic to something they could react at any time, and from any amount of exposure.
- Help Them Keep Up with Their Epinephrine and Inhaler
Teaching them how to use their auto-injector is one thing—helping them to remember to keep up with it once they start self-carrying is another. Teach them that it is just as important to remember to take auto-injectors with them as it is their phone (if they have one.) Every time they leave the house, whether it be for an all-day or overnight outing, or going across the street to a friend’s house, they need to be sure they have their auto-injectors and/or inhaler. It’s a little easier for girls, who can carry them in their purse. My son has his in a carrying case that he either puts in his back pocket or clips to the belt loop on his pants. If your child continues to forget them, or show a dislike in having to carry them, ask how you can help. What would make it easier for them to keep up with their auto-injectors, or to not forget them?
- Label Reading and Eating Out
Teach your kids how to read labels and what to look for. Remind them that allergens may not always be listed by their common names and may not always be listed in bold. Stress to them that “may contain traces of” or “processed on the same equipment as” warnings need to be taken just as seriously as labels listing the allergen. Lastly, remind them that ingredients may change at any time, so even if it’s something they have been able to eat in the past, it may become unsafe to eat at some point.
Also explain to them how to manage their food allergies when eating out. If you have always ordered for them, they may not be sure exactly what they can have or what questions they should ask the server. Practice ordering food at home so they know what to do if they’re eating out without you.
Take advantage of that smart phone, if they have one! If they are ever in doubt about something, they can take pictures of the label or menu and send them to you. There are also many apps out there that make eating out and snacking with food allergies a little easier.
- Have a Support System
Encourage children to make their closest friends aware of how serious their food allergies are. Make sure they have at least one friend at school who knows exactly what they are allergic to and can help them when they’re avoiding their allergens and knows what to do in an emergency. My son took his tester Epi-pen to school one day and gave a demonstration to some of his friends at lunch.
This is especially important as they get older. Right now, my kids are still at the age where even if they go somewhere without me, they’ll still have another adult with them. And that adult will help look out for them. But as we creep into the teenage years, they will be more likely to go places without an adult. So, it will be up to them and whatever friends they are with to manage their food allergies and handle an emergency if one comes up.
- Talk, Talk, Talk
Finally, talk to your children. Keep food allergies a regular topic of conversation, so they don’t forget about them. Frequently ask them questions and give them examples of what to do in certain situations. But also, let them take the lead. Ask them if they have ideas to better manage their food allergies. Let them vent about it if they need to. If they have ideas about how to make something better, or make life with food allergies a little more manageable, tell them to write it down and think more on it. Most of the resources available for people with food allergies were developed by people with food allergies, or the parents of people with food allergies.
Thinking about your children growing up and going off and doing their own thing without you is scary enough without adding food allergies to the mix. Hopefully these tips will help.
What have you done to help your children learn to manage their food allergies on their own? Is there anything else that can be done that wasn’t mentioned? Please let us know in the comment section!