For most parents, the days following the diagnosis of a food allergy are about survival. You’ve just learned this thing that other people eat for enjoyment and nourishment could harm your child. No, it’s bigger than that: You’ve learned that these foods could trigger reactions that are life threatening. You’re afraid. No, you’re terrified. You can’t imagine letting your child out of your sight. You can’t imagine trusting another human to keep your child safe.
As the days give away to weeks, though, you start to find your groove. Label reading becomes second nature. You’ve got a stack of questions you ask to make sure the world around your child is a safe one for her. Eventually, you learn to trust a little. You learn to trust yourself. You learn to identify others you can trust, too. You invest a lot of time and energy into making this food-loving world a safe one for your kid. You can get so wrapped up in these tasks, that you forget one of the most important jobs you have as an allergic parent – equipping your own child to be his own best advocate.
Our job as parents, of course, is to prepare our children to survive and thrive in this world on their own. We’re raising tomorrow’s adults, after all. As you’re focusing on adulting tasks like personal finance, laundry, and cooking, don’t overlook teaching your child to manage her own allergies.
Start Them Young!
When your child is diagnosed as a toddler, it’s easy to think you’ve got time. He can’t be expected to read labels and make smart food choices at this stage. He’s too young to clearly articulate his allergy needs to others. Right? Sure. That’s true, but we’re not talking about going from zero to full independence overnight. We’re talking about laying the foundation for strong allergy management that you’ll be building upon as your child matures so that when he’s looking for tween/teen independence like every other kid his age, he’s prepared to take on allergy management, too.
Be a Role Model
As you go through the process of taking food allergy related precautions – whether that’s reading labels or teaching your child’s teacher about her allergies – let your child see what you’re doing. Read labels the way you do picture books: Run your finger under the words you’re looking over and read them aloud. Don’t do the leg work behind the scenes. Remember that your child is going to take your lead as she grows older, so be confident and request reasonable accommodations. Don’t be fearful of allergies, but respectful. There is a difference.
From play kitchens to dolls and stuffed beasts, children love to play make-pretend. Matter-of-factly incorporate food allergy management into these scenarios. Baking pretend cakes? Encourage your son to “check” the label for allergens. Let him use the auto-injector trainer (many sets come with one) and go through the process of giving a doll a dose of epinephrine. Are a pair of stuffed beasts having a conversation? Have one ask the other, “Do you have food allergies?” and role play the conversation that follows. Do you have a set of blocks with letters on them or other “lettered” toys? Teach your child the letters that spell out his allergens. Put them in order and help him start to recognize the letter combination.
Be Bold but Age-Appropriate
Your kindergartener isn’t prepared to go solo when it comes to making wise decisions that impact her food allergies. She is capable, however, of navigating the ins and outs of allergy management with help. Eating out? When the waiter approaches the table, say “My daughter has food allergies. Honey, can you tell the waiter what you’re allergic to?” Once your child is able to read, take her with you to the grocery store. Check the labels first and then have her “double check” you. When she seems to have the process down, switch the order. Let her check first. Just let her know ahead of time that you’ll be double checking before items go in the chart. If you find something she overlooked, let her know and affirm her efforts. “It can take some getting used to. That’s why we practice and that’s why we check each other.”
Your allergist, your trusted friends and family, and your child’s teacher are your allies. Let them help you help him learn how to do this on his own. At doctor appointments, encourage your child to take the lead in answering general health and allergy-related questions. You’re there as back up to fill in the blanks. Let your child tell the doctor if he’s had any reactions or how he’s managing at school. Enlist family and friend support in creating safe “parent-free” environments where your child can go to hang out with friends or others with a little independence. Knowing others can be trusted to manage his needs will give him the confidence to be ONE of those others when he’s ready.
Find YOUR Tribe
Let’s be honest, this parenting thing can be tough. Letting go and trusting others – including your child – isn’t always easy even when allergies aren’t involved. Build your own support system. Lean on friends you can trust to encourage you and be frank with you when you need them to be. Look for allergy support groups. If you can’t find a local in-person group there are some great ones online. In fact, I encourage you to join the conversation on Facebook at The Allergy Ninja!