When a child is diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies, a parent's first instinct is to do everything in her power to protect her. Sometimes that protective instinct goes into overdrive and results in efforts to completely control the allergy child's environment — to construct a world where the child never has to encounter allergens.
At first glance, living in a world like that seems to make sense. After all, the only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid allergens. However, even the most hopeful efforts cannot wish this world into existence, and trying to raise a child in a bubble results in more harm than good.
If a parent tries to control her children's environment to the point that they never have to even see their allergens, the kids will never learn how to live with their allergies when the parents aren't around.
Here are some ways to raise an allergy child to be self-sufficient in a world that is full of allergens.
1. Surround your child with support. A child's confidence begins at home. A child with severe food allergies needs to be able to trust that the people closest to her — her family — understand her allergies and the accommodations that need to be made.
It's important for the child's parents to be on the same page and to communicate that shared vision to their child. A child with severe food allergies needs to be confident that the food in her own home is always safe to eat. That confidence will go a long way in allowing her to face a world where many foods will be unsafe.
2. Educate your child. Empowerment begins with knowledge. Parents need to educate their children about what their allergens are, the importance of avoiding those allergens, how to read labels and how to use their EpiPen.
They also need to learn to pay attention to what people around them are eating and to understand what cross-contamination is.
3. Don't scare your child. Knowledge is power when dealing with food allergies, but too much information can be scary for kids. Sometimes kids with food allergies can get so worried about having an allergic reaction that they become paralyzed when trying to deal with the real world — to the point that they don't want to touch anything and are too anxious to eat outside their homes.
Parents need to make sure their kids understand how to avoid their food allergens, but they also must make it clear to their kids that there's a Plan B. There are people around them who are helping to keep them safe, and, when used correctly, epinephrine is effective at treating reactions.
4. Teach your child to be an effective self advocate. It can be difficult for anyone to stand up for themselves in the face of skepticism or to people who don't understand. That difficulty is compounded for children, who have been taught to respect adults and who may be intimidated by their authority.
Parents need to teach their children and practice with their children, how to explain to adults what their allergies are, how they need to avoid their allergens and what accommodations are necessary. Kids should feel confident to stand their ground enough to never eat a food they're not sure is safe — no matter what an adult tells them. But they should also not be disrespectful or rude to adults.
One of the most important lessons of life, and one that allergy kids need to learn sooner than later, is that people are much more inclined to want to help you when they like you, and aggressive advocacy will harm, more than help, them in that goal.
5. Embrace the silver linings of allergies. This may come as a shock, but living with food allergies isn't all bad. There are silver linings to all the clouds in life, and kids with food allergies will feel more empowered, and happier in general, if they're taught to embrace the good.
Families with food allergies are by necessity more aware of what's in their food than other people, which often leads to fun cooking hobbies. When searching for new recipes to make traditional treats safe for allergy kids, parents will often find that the replacements taste better than the originals.
As restaurant managers, servers and chefs become more aware of food allergies, many will go out of their way to make allergy kids feel special by cooking them their own off-menu dishes and giving them extra attention.
And, considering that allergy kids often feel sad at being left out of social food rituals, why not let them celebrate the fact that they can also be left out of the childhood mandate to try all new foods — even those that look disgusting?■
Amy Schwabe of Franklin is a freelance writer and blogger. Her oldest daughter has severe peanut and egg allergies.