When my son Daniel was first diagnosed with multiple food allergies, I was so devastated that I could barely speak the news. An email to most friends and family had to suffice. The replies were varied: some dismissive, some overly cheerful.
The response from my friend Donna stood apart. Supportive and encouraging, she acknowledged the seriousness but didn’t make it seem like the end of the world.
“Just wanted to let you know that I’m thinking of you,” she wrote. “I’m sorry you didn’t get the results you were hoping for. If there is anyone that can handle this though, it’s you. You are a strong and determined person and a caring, loving parent. Daniel is very lucky to have you for his mommy. Don’t feel awkward about asking your friends and family to keep nuts away from Daniel. I would think you were crazy if you didn’t. Take it easy,” she said, “and we’ll talk more about this at our next playgroup (over a beer, sans the cashews).”
Many people try to fix, analyze or make light of a food allergy diagnosis. Lending support can simply be a few kind words to validate feelings. Here are common comments that allergy parents hear, and suggestions for how you, as a friend, can tweak your message.
1. I know how you feel.
That’s doubtful. If you’re not dealing with food allergies, you cannot fathom socializing, shopping, dining or traveling in a world where deadly allergens are everywhere. Having to carry around lifesaving medication for your child rocks one’s world.
Instead say: I don’t know how you feel. l’m here to help, though, in any way I can.
2. Do you or your husband have food allergies?
Don’t go there. Mothers feel guilty enough. What if she does have allergies? Avoid probing questions that can be tough to discuss, and see beyond the child’s food allergies.
Instead say: She has your eyes. Or, he’s so tall, like your husband.
3. But he looks so normal!
He is normal.He has food allergies, not two heads. Life-threatening allergies can at times be frightening and overwhelming to manage. But a child with food allergies is still a child. Food allergies are just one piece of the puzzle that makes up a child.
Instead say: He’s adorable.
4. What in the world do you feed that poor kid?
Anything that makes the parent or child feel like a freak of nature does not go over well. Acknowledging the issue is fine, but some words sound harsh.
Instead say: What does she like to eat?
5. I made this for you. It doesn’t have peanuts (or milk, egg, gluten, etc.)
Ugh, no. Shopping, cooking, baking, serving and storing food for children with food allergies is complex and requires learning. Avoid the dangerous pitfalls when you don’t have an allergen-free home.
Instead say: I’d like to serve something safe. What could I purchase?
6. He’ll outgrow it, right?
No one knows. My son’s doctor predicted he would out grow one of his allergies by age 6; almost 10 years later, we are still avoiding that food.
Instead say: I have no doubt you’re taking great care of him.
7. They can cure that allergy now. Or: Did you ever try. . . ?
There are some promising treatments, but none that work for all. (I know this firsthand.) These questions can put the parent in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why she is not pursuing the so-called “cure” that you read about online.
Instead say: It sounds like there is a lot of interesting research going on today.
8. He’s going to have to get used to it.
Allergic children are used to it. Food allergies affect celebrations, travel, camps, schools, sleepovers – all things that children like to do.
Instead say: What can we do so that your child can participate?
9. I feel so bad for him.
Managing food allergies can be challenging and frightening, but it is not a tragedy. No child wants to be pitied.
Instead say: How are you doing with this? I’m here if you need to talk.
10. God never gives you more than you can handle.
It’s not helpful to rationalize or minimize the parent’s experience. Let her know you are there to support her.
Instead say: How can I help?
Even with the best of intentions, words can be like tiny bombs that leave lasting effects. Be gentle with your approach to parents of allergic kids. When in doubt, use the time-tested ways to show that you care: offering your help, support, and a shoulder to lean on.
Allergic Living columnist Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach, who specializes in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, an online support group serving thousands of families. This article was first published in Allergic Living magazine. Learn about subscribing here.