You may have noticed signs posted at eateries, “Inform the server if you have food allergies,” the bold fonts listing common allergens below the ingredients’ labels, and cautionary statements on packaging such as, “This product may contain traces of peanut, tree nuts and soy.” Perhaps you have had to read these labels because of school and/or camp restrictions on foods from home. For families with food allergies, these are daily, required reading assignments to keep their child(ren) safe. Families with newly discovered food allergies have many questions. They can feel overwhelmed and terrified, wondering what to feed their child, how to be an advocate, and how to deal with social situations involving food, and so forth. So what can you do? You can become well-educated about food allergies to keep all kids healthy, happy and safe.
The Parents of Children with Food Allergies, a support group affiliated with Parent Talk, was created about 5 years ago with the goal of helping families deal with food allergies in everyday life. Currently, there are more than thirty (30) families in the group, with a range of children’s ages from newborn to preteen, and more join their membership every month. This group meets regularly and shares life experiences -- doctor recommendations, recipes, school and camp options, travel/resort tips, party and play date advice, dining experiences, and so forth. If requested, parents new to food allergies can be paired up with a family experienced in dealing with similar allergies.
We asked the group, “What do you, as parents of food allergic kids, wish that other parents knew?” There were many responses, with the most common being the feeling of huge appreciation for the friends and family in their lives who make it a priority to be supportive and educated. In addition, there were a few repeating responses concerning common social situations that we have paraphrased below:
1. Willingness to use an Epi-Pen Injector: “As my child gets older, there will be play dates at other kid’s houses without me. There will even be sleepovers. I am going to do my utmost to make it easy and safe. But in the end, you are taking responsibility for my child.” For our kids, there must be an adult at that social situation willing to learn how to administer an Epi-Pen Injector, and call 911 if an emergency arises. If the adult isn’t comfortable with needles or using the Epi-Pen Injector, it’s really important to admit it. Honestly, we appreciate your honesty! We’ll work with you to find other ways to have safe play dates.
2. At Social Gatherings like Birthday Parties: Parents of children with food allergies will call or email prior to the social gatherings, letting you know that their child(ren) have food allergies. They let you know, “I will bring their Epi-Pen Injector and a special ‘treat’ and/or safe snack to eat in place of whatever is being provided. I’ll teach you how to use the Epi-Pen Injector or stay for the celebration.” When you get these calls, please don’t take offense or feel that you should offer to find/bake an allergen-free treat. We, and our children, are calling ahead and bringing safe snacks because we want the focus of the party to be on your birthday boy/girl. It is your child’s moment “to shine.” By providing a treat that we absolutely know is safe assures that everyone’s memories of the party will be about the party and your child, not about our children going by ambulance to the Emergency Room.
3. It’s Emotional as well as Physical: Food allergies aren’t just a physical issue, but they can cause emotional issues for children. Please be sensitive. This is most likely a lifelong condition. As one family put it, people shouldn't ask, “Oh dear, but he/she will grow out of it, right?” in front of the child. It’s rare for food allergies to be outgrown, and children need to accept their limitations, while not feeling diminished because of them. But please, don’t hesitate to ask parents privately about their child’s food allergies. Parents of children with food allergies willingly answer questions, because the more people learn about food allergies, then the safer the world becomes for their children. As the saying goes, knowledge is power.
4. Be like everyone else – be described as something else first: Children with food allergies do not want is to be defined or labeled by their food allergies. You know Little Johnny, he’s the food allergy kid. Their parents want their children to have as typical a childhood as possible, for their children to be safe, yet enjoyed and befriended for their personalities.
The number of children being born with food allergies, or who develop food allergies later in childhood, grows every day. For great more great information about food allergies and how you can help, please visit www.foodallergy.org and www.asthmaandallergies.org.
Contributed by: Cindy Aswad, Christine Burns, and The Parents of Children with Food Allergies Group.
lives in the Boston area with her husband and their three children. A former teacher, she earned a B.A. in English eons ago from Colby College, as well as a M.A. from Simmons College and a M.Ed. from Lesley University. She is an active member of Parents of Children with Food Allergies.