Teaching Kids To Speak Up About Food Allergies (and Sensitivities)
- It’s imperative to our children’s well-being that we teach them how to advocate for themselves, how to communicate effectively, and how to use the right words to say what they can and cannot safely have.
- by Karen Johnson, scarymommy.com 1
As parents, there are moments that remain solidified in our memories—years, even decades later. We can recall every detail, every sound, what we were wearing, if the sun was out or if it was raining, and who else was present. For me, one of those memories is from the summer of 2017.
I was at a girls’ weekend getaway and I got the call. As soon as I saw it was our pediatrician’s office calling, I stepped outside so I could hear the test results clearly. It was a pivotal moment in my life as a mom because from that day forward, everything changed.
That was the day—the moment—we knew for sure that my four-year-old son was allergic to peanuts. That he was about to become an “Epipen kid” and I, an “allergy mom.” And that we were going to have to start teaching him the severity of his allergy, and how to communicate to others what he could and couldn’t have when we weren’t there to protect him. Because that’s what being an allergy parent means.
It’s not just the doctor’s visits and tests and paperwork and meds. It’s also teaching our kids how to advocate for themselves. How to protect their own bodies and how to safely go out into the world—a world where something that could mean life or death for them was very much present and could pop up at any time.
One struggle allergy parents face is teaching our toddlers and preschoolers to speak up about their allergies. And this can be particularly tricky, as young kids are often picky eaters. Adults might hear a three- or four-year old say, “I can’t have milk” and think the child just doesn’t like milk. In reality, that child’s throat could close if they ingest this harmful allergen.
Or, a young child could try to explain a gluten allergy and the caregiver in charge could misinterpret that as meaning the parents tend to eat gluten-free at home by choice, not realizing the severity of the child’s gluten intolerance.
That’s why it’s important to teach our “allergy kids” how to effectively communicate if they have an allergy and do so in a way that adults hear them and take them seriously.
To help parents with navigating the choppy waters of raising children with allergies, Scary Mommy interviewed Dr. S. Amna Husain, MD, FAAP Board Certified Pediatrician from Marlboro, NJ, who offers some helpful tips. Dr. Husain knows first-hand what stresses allergy parents endure, as she’s not only a pediatrician, but also a mom to a child with a tree nut allergy.
“My daughter is allergic to tree nuts and is three and a half years old,” Dr. Husain explains. “She is starting school and we have been working on teaching her about her allergies for the last couple of months before school started. We have not had any scary situations at school but have definitely worried at large gatherings and family functions that someone will feed her something that wouldn’t be safe for her to eat!”
And, Dr. Husain adds, “There’s definitely a lot of anxiety as being a food allergy mom that you don’t realize until you become one.”
That last part is so true. Prior to being an allergy mom myself, I have to admit I probably rolled my eyes at some of the things I used to hear from parents I perceived to be overly dramatic. Like, what kid couldn’t have milk?! How can a child possibly be allergic to strawberries?! So what if they eat a little gluten. What’s the big deal?
Now I know. And I apologize to every “dramatic” parent I ever judged, as I am now one myself, constantly stressing that my kid will eat something he can’t safely have.
As Dr. Husain explains, you don’t understand the anxiety of this world until you’re living in it.
Until you’re dropping your little person off where they’ll be in someone else’s care and it takes all your strength to drive away as you tell yourself over and over that they’ll be okay. Or until you’ve had to practice with them over and over, and seal it into rote memory in their still developing brains, using words they understand with their limited vocabulary… I can’t have nuts… I’m allergic to milk … Does this have gluten in it?
Until you’ve endured sleepless nights of worry, and spent money you don’t have seeing specialists, and joined “allergy parents” support groups, and filled out form after form listing your child’s allergies, and watched videos on how to use an epipen on your child, you don’t know the realities allergy parents go through. And you might, like I used to, unfairly judge them or think they’re being over dramatic, when really, they’re just trying—like any other parent—to make sure their kids are okay.
Another topic, beyond simply empathizing with fellow allergy parents, that we discussed with Dr. Husain was tips for parents as they get their kids ready to safely go out into the world.
“As a pediatrician and food allergy mom, I realize how important it is to educate my own child so she can clearly communicate her allergy to teachers and support staff around her when she starts school,” Dr. Husain says. “For young children, it’s very important to introduce a few concepts at a time. You can use simple phrases like ‘This food can make you sick,’ or use words like ‘safe food’ versus ‘unsafe food.’”
Also, Dr. Husain recognizes that many parents do not bring the allergen into their homes at all as a precautionary measure.
So how then, do we teach our young children what the unsafe food looks like?
- “You can show your child pictures of the food in books, magazines, or my personal favorite-a trip to the grocery store,” she recommends.
- In addition, let them help pick out foods at the store or a restaurant. Teach them what symbols to look for, or, as soon as they can read, the words to identify on the packaging—nuts, soy, eggs, etc.
- And, Dr. Husain says another tip is to teach your child to “only eat foods given to them by parents or other trusted adults, like a nanny, babysitter, or teacher,” emphasizing that young kids need to be told things over and over to ensure they truly understand. “This is a concept I usually recommend visiting more than once or twice,” Dr. Husain adds.
- This means if they make a new friend on the playground and that friend offers to share a snack, they can’t say yes. And that we, as parents, may have to go over these rules with them many times as kids forget things easily.
- Furthermore, Dr. Husain recommends parents “refrain from using words like ‘yucky’ or ‘disgusting’ when labelling the food allergy foods,” because another adult could just think your child doesn’t like the food if they use these terms.
- “Instead, try using appropriate words and terminology and revisiting this concept frequently. Time and education will help your child be able to take more responsibility for his or her safety,” Dr. Husain tells Scary Mommy.
Also, it’s imperative that we teach our allergy kiddos what symptoms could mean an allergic reaction.
- For my son, we talk about how important it is that he tell an adult if his mouth ever feels weird, if he feels itchy, or if he can’t breathe right.
- Other symptoms might include a child’s tongue feeling hot, lips feeling tight, or food tasting spicy, explains an article on Kids Health.
Another key piece to parenting a child with allergies is to keep calm, says Asthma & Allergy Specialists, from Charlotte, NC.
- “I know it is easier said than done,” doctors say, “but try not to panic about your child’s food allergy in front of them. They will mirror your response. If you appear anxious, they will become anxious as well. It is important they know that their condition is serious, but they also need to know about there is no need to worry because there are plans in place to help them.”
- And, this is a good reminder for anyone caring for a young child, too, that we all need to listen to kids when they tell us they can’t have a certain food. We can’t assume they’re simply being “picky,” but rather, we need to hear that they are vocalizing what they need to stay safe.
Finally, Dr. Husain reiterates a strong recommendation pediatricians are saying across the board these days. “No one wants their kids to have allergies, especially life-threatening ones. The best way to combat your kid developing a food allergy is to introduce them to all types of foods—particularly common allergens like nuts, eggs, fish, etc.—very early on.”
- “With early and consistent exposure, we know we can decrease the risk of our little one potentially developing a food allergy,” the experienced pediatrician and allergy mom says.
- Obviously, parents will likely also communicate to any and all caregivers—teachers, babysitters, daycare workers, babysitters, nannies, camp counselors, grandparents, neighbors, etc.—what exactly their child is allergic to. But we can’t only rely on that, especially as they get older and are away from us more and more.
It’s imperative to our children’s well-being that we teach them how to advocate for their own selves, how to communicate effectively, and how to use the right words to say what they can and cannot safely have.
Living a life with allergies is not ideal, and not something anyone asks for, but for many of our little ones, it’s just a harsh reality they have to live with. It is our job, therefore, to equip them with the proper tools to be safe and live a happy, healthy, and normal life.