Navigating the Kids’ Birthday Party with Allergies

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in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School

Photo: Getty
Birthday parties are tricky territory with food allergies. You want your child to be able to join the fun, but from the cake to lunch and goodie bags, these parties are fraught with food allergy concerns. So how to go about helping your child to take part safely?

Allergic Living turned to three experienced allergy advocates to help navigate the world of the kid’s birthday party. Our experts are: Gina Clowes, a certified parenting coach and founder of AllergyMoms.com; Beatrice Povolo the director of media relations and advocacy for Food Allergy Canada and Susan Clemens, an allergy advocate and former web moderator for Allergicliving.com. All three have children with multiple food allergies. Following is the advice they had to offer.

Step 1: Reply to the Invitation

It’s important to call soon after receiving the invitation.

The Call: Start with a gracious thank you and acknowledgement that your child is thrilled to be invited. Now move into the key points:

– Politely ask where the party will be held. For instance, will it be at a venue or the hostess’s home?

– With this information to guide you, bring up (or remind of) your child’s food allergies. Ask if now is a good time to go over a few details to both keep your child safe and resolve any initial concerns about child’s attendance.

– Stress that you’re happy to help in any way, and calmly move onto:

  • Will the party involve a meal or snack?
  • What activities will take place? Might there be a risk of exposure to allergens? Look for solutions to minimize any risks.
  • What will be the order of activities? For instance, if the party starts with a pizza lunch and your child’s dairy allergic, could the hostess and her helpers ensure the kids have all washed up, and then your child will arrive post-lunch but pre-cake presentation?

– If the party includes lunch at a home, discuss that you’ll send your child with something safe to eat. More in Step 2.

– Discuss cake arrangements. See Step 4.

– Ask the parent if she is familiar with an auto-injector or EpiPen. Ask to set a date closer to the party to grab a coffee with her and demonstrate the use of the auto-injector and do a review of the anaphylaxis emergency plan (also called the food allergy action plan). Step 5 details that conversation.

Step 2: What to Bring

If lunch is being served, our allergy mom advocates prefer a strategy of telling the hostess you’ll send your child with a comparable safe lunch. (You may need to explain briefly that there are issues such as hidden ingredients that can make allergen avoidance more difficult than it sounds.) Sending your own is the safest and easiest way to go.

– For allergies like nuts, peanuts – why not offer to contribute the ice cream? That way, it will be allergy-safe and, bonus, you’re helping.

– Beatrice Povolo says: “lf they’re having pizza from a local restaurant, I’ll make or buy pizza that is similar.” She finds this helps her son to not feel “different.”

– For a house party, Povolo offers to bring a snack that her son and the rest of the kids will all like. Perhaps a party size bag of safe potato chips.

– Susan Clemens always brings lots of wipes. Ever handy around allergic kids and others don’t always have them.

Step 3: What You Can Do

– Why not offer to help supervise the party? Many parties require extra adult eyes, such as mini golf, play gym and kids’ theatre outings. This is also true of larger home parties.

– Whether you drop off your child or stay depends on the party situation, the hostess’s level of comfort managing allergies, and your child’s anxiety level and ability to manage his or her allergies. Trust your instinct on this.

– If the party will be at a facility, such as an indoor playground, wave pool, museum or beading venue, contact the management to inquire about allergen policies. (Quite a few facilities catering to kids now have peanut/nut restrictions.)

– Restaurants don’t usually permit outside food. But if you explain the allergies in advance, you’ll often be allowed to bring along safe food from home.

Photo: Getty

Step 4: The Cake

What’s a birthday without a cake? But, of course, it presents one of the biggest allergy risks.

– Relieve the hostess of the burden of trying to provide an allergy-free cake. Offer to bring your allergic child’s own slice of cake or cupcake. That way, your child is included but safe. To help your child fit in, Clemens says to ask that the “special” cupcake or slice isn’t served before the first piece of birthday cake.

– This said, Povolo has found it fairly common for the birthday child’s parents to ask if there is a bakery she can recommend for buying a safe cake. She knows of some. “lf they do that, l offer to pick it up.”

Step 5: In-Person Follow-up

This is your planned meeting with the party hostess or hosts, perhaps over a coffee.

– Quickly re-confirm the events at the party, and the food that’s being served. Explain the concept of cross-contamination in the kitchen, stressing that if your child’s safe foods are kept separately and touched with fresh utensils, there should be no issues.

– Bring a copy of your child’s anaphylaxis emergency plan for the parent, and point out the symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction.

– Stress that if your child was to get symptoms, prompt use of the epinephrine auto-injector is the correct action. Explain why: it’s easier to stop a reaction in the early phase.

Auto-injector training: First, try to defuse fear – it’s not a “big needle,” it’s a life-saving device. Gina Clowes brings along an orange and an expired auto-injector and lets the parent give the orange a practise dose. Or simply bring along an auto-injector and a trainer for demonstrating.

– Mention that the emergency protocol after injection is to call: first 91 1, then you.

– Be sure to thank the party hostess profusely for her efforts to accommodate your child.

– Povolo and Clowes say this meeting is also important for letting the host parent express her own comfort level. lf there is hesitance about using the auto-injector in an emergency, Povolo would always “offer to help supervise during the meal.”

Important: do the auto-injector training before the party. The hostess is far too busy on party day.

Step 6: Drop Off or Stay?

– Povolo advises staying if the child’s: unusually anxious or not ready to be left (there is no magic age for this), or when the host parent asks that you do.

– By the time her son was 9, Clowes would still attend a party if it takes place at a public venue her son’s not familiar with. At house parties when he was younger, she would just be frank about her feelings. “I’d say, ‘I’m a little nervous to leave Daniel. He is still impulsive sometimes about what he eats. I can hang out and read, but I’d also be so happy to help. Anything I can do?”

– Clemens often goes and takes fun, candid photos of the kids. She presents a CD of the snapshots to the parents as a thank you for letting her attend. Given her daughter’s list of allergies, “when I delicately ask if I can be allowed to stay, the response is usually one of relief.”

Step 7: Party Favors

– Ask about the loot bag – you may want to offer up similar but safe treats, which the hostess can put in one of her bags, and set aside for your child. Or perhaps she’ll offer to look for cool, non-food items.

– Clemens says: covertly check the loot bag at pickup time. Bags can get mixed up; or you may want to substitute some safe candy before your party-goer has a peek.

Watch out for: activities that may involve food. For instance, a piñata. Is there candy in that?

Step 8: Prepping Your Child

– Before the call to the hostess, Clemens likes to ask her 8-year-old what issues she would raise. “By involving the child, you ensure she or he feels safe, and it limits anxiety. It becomes less of “Mommy has to keep me safe,” and more “I can keep myself safe.”

– Instill confidence: remind the child that he has his auto-injector and knows how to use it. Get the child repeat the allergy rules known by heart (no sharing, no eating unknown foods, wash after eating). The message? See, you know this stuff.

– Remind that you’re nearby and have your mobile phone if there are any problems. If child thinks he or she is getting symptoms, tell the hostess right away.

– Clowes used to emphasize to her son that “he never has to eat anything that he has a question about.” That’s a great anxiety diffuser.

– Role play can be helpful: Ask “what will you say?” if an adult at the party (or anywhere) offers a food the child can’t eat. When her son was young, Clowes discussed turn-down options for her son. They ranged from “no thank you” and “I’m allergic” to “I just ate” in a situation where he didn’t want to stand out. (The point was, he turned down the food.)

– Matter-of-factly ask the child for his or her thoughts on the party. If there are lingering concerns, discuss and resolve.

– Don’t just talk allergy issues. Be enthused about the party and celebrating a friend. Get the child to bring up gift ideas. With food allergies, we “prepare” for fun, but we want fun all the same.

Photo: Getty

Step 9: Arriving for the Party

– If you are staying, make sure your child is aware of this before the party, and knows why. A surprise could embarrass.

– If you have decided the situation looks good for dropping off your child, the hostess should be given the allergic child’s food along with the cake substitute and any safe candy.

– Remind the hostess about the cross-contamination issue, and ask that she be the one who serves the food to your allergic child. (Other helpers aren’t trained on precautions.)

– With allergy training done in Step 5, you should just show that the anaphylaxis emergency plan, auto-injector (and puffer for asthma if required) are in the medicine bag. Pull out the plan and point to your contact numbers (including your cellphone).

– Always get the hostess’s mobile phone number.

Step 10: Letting Go

A few last thoughts from Gina Clowes: “Yes, our kids have more to deal with because of their allergies. But our job as parents remains the same: teach them to be in this world on their own.

“So if you feel comfortable that your child is ready to attend a party on his/her own, make sure that the caregivers are trained in avoiding, recognizing and treating allergic reaction. Make sure your child is clear on exactly what he can and cannot eat, and that he knows that he must report symptoms of a reaction immediately to the designated adult.

“You have trained him to get to this point. So, then you kiss his little face and let go. Visualize him or her coming back to you having had a wonderful time at the party and in a few short hours, this will come true.”

Allergy Party Talk

Tone is everything in communication. With the host parents, be courteous and respectful of their child’s special occasion. “Can I do this to help?” will win you friends. “You must” sounds demanding, perhaps intimidating and off-putting.

It’s not a good idea to “wing it” in your pre-party discussions with the hostess. Anaphylaxis is serious and so you want to be organized, clear, succinct and calm. We suggest using this guide to help you during your hostess call and follow-up meeting, adding your own questions to reflect a particular allergy situation.

– Stay focused on the positive, and inspire the hostess to have a similar attitude about your child. Beatrice Povolo speaks of her son’s allergies as important but quite manageable. She avoids presenting her son in a negative light. e.g. “Poor Joey really wants to come, but he has these allergies .…”

– Be an allergy ambassador, says Susan Clemens. “Welcome questions, but don’t preach.” She reminds: “The party is not about your child. Special allowances need to be done smoothly and without fanfare.”

– Say thank you, a lot.

Related Reading: 
7 Fast Tips for Food Allergy-Friendly Birthdays

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