I remember the day my eldest son was diagnosed. Communication came from doctors and nurses stuffed with Latin based medical jargon, clinical analysis and words that only really resonated with the adults in the room. Eventually, when the dust settled and our family went back to living our real life, I realized the onus was on us as parents to learn how to talk about food allergies with our child. Living with food allergies is a lifelong journey and your ability to adapt how you address food allergies with your kid will need to evolve over time. And, although the way in which the message is presented will change slightly as your child matures, the need to hone your skills on how you speak about food allergies won’t lessen. Regardless of whether you are in the beginning stages of learning how to engage with your child about allergies or if you are an experienced allergy parent interested in growing your dialogue with your child, here are some tips on how to talk to kids about food allergies:
Spell Out What is Off Limits
Define exactly what is and isn’t off limits. Throwing out generic terms like don’t eat or “diary” or whatever the offending allergen happens to be just isn’t specific enough. There are so many hidden opportunities for allergens to sneak their way into your child’s food that specificity if required. Sit down together and brainstorm to create a list of off-limit items. This acts as a physical reminder to reinforce healthy behaviors and independence. If your child is too young to carry, keep up with, and read this list themselves, have a physical copy or copies laminated and placed in the item(s) that go with them when you aren’t around like their backpack and/or lunchbox. This is also recommended for older kids too. This will aide them in situations where things are unclear like unlabeled food or drinks, something that is manufactured in a facility that processes the reaction causing allergens, or a food that may or may not contain the problem item. Kids of all ages need a well-defined set of rules to help guide them in times of tough decision making.
Ditch the Fear
Although as parents we are often terrified by the mere thought of our child being in a situation that could harm their health, sharing this fear with your kid won’t be productive. Educate them about the facts of their food allergy in a clinical way. Chances are your child had a pretty traumatic road to diagnosis and it is import to begin healing their emotional relationship with food. Stress that while not all food is safe to eat, food itself isn’t the enemy. Choosing foods carefully is necessary but promote that this doesn’t close the door to enjoying one of life’s most necessary and enjoyable pleasures.
The transition from diagnosis to living a fully allergen free lifestyle can be emotional. Relating to your young one with empathy about their struggle will ensure their psychological health is being cared for in addition to their physical well-being. Check in regarding how they are relating to others now that they feel “different” or “set apart.” Put out feelers to ensure that your child isn’t feeling like they are a victim of food allergy bullying. Let them know that they will cycle through different feelings throughout living the allergy free lifestyle feelings of a varied nature like frustration, anger, depression, or insecurity aren’t something they should feel ashamed about. Reassure them that you are there for them as a sounding board and that you won’t judge where they may be at emotionally during any given time of this journey.
Encourage Speaking Out
Your child doesn’t have the luxury of being able to hide in their shell if they are living with a food allergy. Young or old, your child must learn to be their own advocate. This can be particularly difficult if your child is naturally shy, intimidated or uncomfortable speaking up and out in a large group. Make sure that you reinforce that communication is necessary to keep them safe. Encourage speaking up and out and create a safe environment for your child to practice these skills when together. Role play and pose questions in various ways to get them prepared for real life. Keep all criticism constructive with a positive tone. Be your child’s cheerleader to feel confident that they are making the right choice by making their situation known.
Let Them Know They Aren’t Alone
Having a food allergy can sometimes cause feelings of isolation for children. Opening the door to the idea that a real food allergy community exists can help kids feel more included in the world around them. Introduce your child to community events raising money for allergy causes like fun runs and canned food drives, allergy safe playdate groups, and allergen safe food festivals. Share the latest in allergy related community news to reinforce the idea that allergy concerns are at the forefront of your hometown but also nationwide and the world at large. Introduce allergy bloggers and social media groups and influencers that highlight positive allergy related child-friendly messages and promote self-love and confidence to those kids that are old enough to be connecting in this way with others. You can show your child that they are not alone by involving them in the wider allergy community.