Family Food Feud: Relatives and Allergies

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: December 7, 2010

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When to Avoid and
Not to Avoid Events

But just not showing up isn’t the answer: Cathcart-Ross adds that people living with allergies or celiac disease must calmly, carefully and directly explain why they’re not coming to Uncle Bob’s birthday party or their cousin’s graduation celebration. “How you communicate this to family is vital. A caring attitude is always helpful.”

It’s also important to not avoid events unnecessarily. Dr. Shemesh says it may be unreasonable to expect a relative’s home to be allergen- or gluten-free, but so long as exposure to dangerous foods does not happen, there is no harm in visiting. He adds that, especially when it comes to allergic kids, avoiding things that are safe along with those that aren’t can blur the line between what is allowed and what is not – and this leads to anxiety instead of confidence for all involved.

“There are healthy ways to avoid allergens, but sometimes we can become far too restrictive – avoiding more than we need to,” says Shemesh. “This can lead to a behavior pattern called ‘avoidance coping.’”

It took four years, but Lamontagne finally explained to her aunt that she wasn’t a control freak about her son’s allergy, but was driven by the fear of losing him. A milestone event she couldn’t miss – her grandparents’ 65th anniversary – eventually brought her back in touch with her relatives, and when one of Lamontagne’s aunts asked if she could give her son a peanut-free Popsicle, she felt they finally, truly got it.

“I cried it was such a breakthrough,” she remembers. “It’s hard to describe because they didn’t get it for so long. All they needed to do was realize they can put my fears to rest by reading and keeping labels.”

Are You Communicating
Food Issues Clearly?

After the dust settled, Lamontagne realized that she and her relatives had never actually sat down and compared expectations – and the experts say that in these situations, clear, effective communication is the key. Gina Clowes is the founder of and a certified master life coach who counsels allergic families.

In her view, allergic adults, or parents of allergic kids need to be very clear about what they need – and they must set aside time to make that happen rather than trying to get the message across in the heat of the moment.

“In dealing with this potentially life and death illness, many people have not scheduled that meeting to actually sit down and talk with relatives. This can’t be done on the fly,” says Clowes. “Allergic adults and parents of kids with food allergy or celiac disease tend to be fact finders, they have hundreds of hours of education on this – but they haven’t even shared a solid hour with relatives.”

Clowes finds it’s also important to remember that while people with food allergies see everything through allergy-colored lenses, their relatives don’t – so it’s easy for them to forget about allergies at busy family functions. “We break bread together; that’s how people connect,” she says. “We just have a very different experience with food that’s dangerous to us.”

Different cultural backgrounds and beliefs can also play a role. Not long ago, Michael Furzeland spent five hours in hospital getting his asthma under control after he walked into his house to find his girlfriend, who is Filipino, cooking fish – a food he is severely allergic to.

Fish is a staple in her culture, and while she acknowledges Furzeland’s allergy, she doesn’t grasp its severity. “I think ethnic differences are sometimes part of the problem,” says Furzeland, who lives in Jasper, Alberta. “She thinks that I don’t like fish – not that I’m allergic to it and must avoid it for my health.”

One Italian-American couple said they struggled with grandparents who offered allergen-laced food to their young kids; but the father found a smart way of presenting the issue – by drawing a parallel between the food allergy and the grandfather’s diabetes. The grandmother was already very careful to avoid sugar because it could be harmful, and when the son asked if Papa was “allergic” to sugar, the light bulb went on and the problem was fixed.

“Some of the problem with communication can be cultural,” agrees Laurie Harada, executive director of Food Allergy Canada. “Relatives who have emigrated from other countries may have never come across food allergies before.” Besides cultural differences, there is a generation gap since the fast rise of allergies is a recent phenomenon.

Rachel O’Neill’s mother-in-law is in her 70s and O’Neill concedes that, “it was uncommon in her day to be allergic to nuts, let alone any foods.”

In the end, there is no magic cure that will work for every family because complex problems cannot be solved with simple solutions – and, as they say, you don’t choose your family. But clear and calm communication is vital, as is the ability for those living with allergies to put themselves in their relatives’ shoes. Harada suggests one way to do this is to pick three allergens that are not the ones you usually deal with. Now just think about the level of concentration and focus that’s required when it comes to preparing food.

“I think we have to appreciate the stress people feel when preparing food for folks with allergies,” says Harada. “Because if people don’t have to live with this, they’re not going to automatically retain the information or think about things the way that we would, but that’s sometimes the expectation we have.

“It takes a while for us to get it, and it takes a while for others to get it as well,” she says. When it comes to the learning curve and the family curveballs, “I think what we need to be is patient.”

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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See Also:
Creating Peace in the Family when Visiting Relatives
Caregivers ‘Testing’ Allergens on Infants
When Family Doesn’t ‘Get’ Allergies