EVERY school year, we are flooded by calls from parents who want to know when their allergic child should begin carrying his or her own epinephrine auto-injector. While the national consensus guidelines, Anaphylaxis in Schools & Other Settings, recommend 6 to 7 years of age, the fact is, this is not a hard and fast rule. We know of many children who are able to carry their devices at a younger age, as well as many older ones who do not carry them. A child’s ability to take on more responsibility will depend on many factors, including his own level of maturity and acceptance of his condition, as well as the support of other adults into whose care he’s placed.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with several parents who have been reluctant to have their children carry auto-injectors due to fears that they would be teased, bullied, or even “traumatized”. Many admitted that there had never been any negative encounters, and that their school communities had been very supportive. I encouraged these parents to try different tactics with their children, which would get the buy-in of the kids. They often came back to update me on their progress, pleased by the fact that, with coaching, their children learned to accept this responsibility, and had not been singled out nor become more fearful because of carrying an auto-injector.
What I’ve come to realize in dealing with my own son, Julian (now 13), is that sometimes it’s us, the parents, who are not ready to have our children accept more responsibility. Why is this? Because we’re fearful that the child may not comply with a rule, or make a mistake, or that someone else will inadvertently put him at risk. But what messages do we send our kids when we don’t allow them to learn for themselves?
On several occasions, I’ve had to take a step back and quell my own fears, as Julian begins to spread his wings. When he was 11, he came home with a note about a two-day trip his Grade 6 class would be taking at the end of the school year. My anxiety spiked as I worried about his readiness to manage on his own, given his multiple food allergies. Although he had stayed over at friends’ homes many times, he was never interested in staying at an overnight camp. This would be a new experience.
I worried about the staff being able to accommodate his allergies, and whether Julian would feel comfortable seeking help. As my blood pressure continued to rise, I came up with the perfect solution: I would go as a parent volunteer. Even though my plan was to ask that he be put in a group with another parent volunteer, Julian was horrified by the idea. It was okay for other parents to attend, just not his parents, and especially not his mother.
Things worked out. While he was away, I managed to calm down with a lot of self-talk: The teachers have been trained, we’ve checked things out with the food services staff, he has his medication with him, and he’s close to a hospital if anything happens. Julian returned bursting with stories about what he had learned and how much fun he had bunking with his friends in a dorm, and how the food services staff went out of their way for him. I was proud of us both – Julian for embracing this new experience with gusto, and me for reaching another milestone with my sanity intact. But what impressed me the most about Julian was what he learned about himself during the trip.
His class had watched a video about the history of the Jesuit priests who had sacrificed their lives in the name of their religion. As it played, his friend Jack whispered: “Julian, you should pray to the saints to get rid of your allergies!” (Apparently, many people had been cured of debilitating diseases after praying to the saints.) Good idea, Julian thought, but then hesitated.
Julian related having this second thought: “Maybe God had put me on Earth to help anaphylactic people. Maybe that was my job.” He reasoned that not having allergies just wouldn’t have the same effect, and wouldn’t be as inspiring. It would be “like Terry Fox running across Canada with two legs and no cancer.” In his head, he said, “Never mind God, I want to keep my allergies.”
While I was learning to let go, my son discovered that maybe it’s not so bad having food allergies, and that perhaps his purpose in life was greater. Now, when I question his ability to take on more responsibility, I think back to his epiphany. Instead of wondering if he’s ready, I tell myself, “He can do it.”
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.