by Jill Connell
At 18 months old, we confirmed that our son had multiple allergies to all forms of milk and eggs, as well as peanuts and tree nuts. Not only would he react when he ate the allergens but also touching them or touching residue on playgrounds, chairs, tables and toys. It was overwhelming. I remember thinking how do I teach him how to manage this? How does he navigate a world with food around every corner? How do I keep him from making a deadly mistake? How do I prepare him without scaring him?
One of the things I look back on and don’t regret is being open and real with him from day one. On a level he could understand, he always knew he had allergies. We always stressed to him that if food didn’t come from mom, he didn’t eat it. We had special stickers on his cups and lunchbox that he was told to look for at school so that he wouldn’t eat the wrong thing or take a sip of someone else’s milk cup.
At two years old, I put up a pocket chart listing all of his allergies. It included pictures of his allergens and the sight word. They were his first sight words on his reading journey. We went over them and discussed what he doesn’t eat. We read books about other kids with food allergies. We role-played with someone offering him food and how to politely respond with a “No thank you”. He has always had an EpiPen trainer in his toy doctor supplies and we told him what the EpiPens were for, how to care for them, and how to use them.
I believe the best way to really help a food allergic child to understand their allergies is just to talk. Talk all the time as you are doing things like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, attending birthday parties and other people’s homes. Talk to them just like you do when crossing the street and giving them instructions on how to stay safe. Warn them of the dangers but show them how to make the right decision and convey to them that they can manage it. Give them the tools to make the right decision. Tell them how we are going to succeed in the upcoming situation. When he was little, I took him grocery shopping with me and I’d read the ingredient lists to him. I’d even explain the food allergy labelling laws. There were even times when I pointed out things that were unsafe, explained why, and what to look for. While cooking, I talked to him about ingredients and that all foods have parts and “if we can’t read it… we don’t eat it”. Over time, it just became a part of us. Now at 6 years old, he reads ingredient lists to me in the store and reads recipes while I’m working on a meal and he often helps me to cook. He understands what items can be used as substitutions in recipes. He recently reminded me to just use some applesauce in a recipe that called for egg. I want to always convey to him that he can successfully be in charge of his allergies and that there is always a way to succeed with them even though it may take a little extra effort and ingenuity on our part.
Recently I bought the wrong animal crackers accidentally that had a warning statement on them. While riding in the backseat, he read the unopened package’s label and discovered the warning label. At 6 years old, he authoritatively stated, “I will not be eating these nor will my sister.” Most Sundays at church when I pick them up I’m told stories of my kids self advocating. How they have reminded teachers to only give them their safe foods and to wash their hands. And most recently both explained their allergies to their dentist without my prompting.
It is a great feeling and somewhat of a relief to have children who, at 4 and 6, are confident and articulate about their condition. They don’t see their allergies as road blocks or something they can’t handle, but can see ways to get around their allergies and thrive.
Our Book List:
“Food Allergies and Me” by Juniper Skinner
“Mommy, Is this safe to eat? by Christina Black
“Starting School with a Food Allergy” by Christina Black
All of the “No Biggie Bunch” books
“Captain Jack’s Peanut Free Pirates” by Sarah Prye
“Taking Food Allergies to School” by Ellen Weiner
“Allie the Allergic Elephant” by Nicole Smith
Food for Thought is the blog for the Food Allergy Alliance of the MidSouth. FAAM's mission is to provide food allergy support, education, advocacy, fellowship & fun for Memphis, TN and surrounding areas.
If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately and follow up with a physician.