Help children learn to manage food allergies by knowing when to ask more, and when to step in.
As I served cake to my son’s friends, his buddy Ben asked, “Does this cake have peanuts in it?” I was surprised to learn Ben has a food allergy as his mother had dropped him off without an auto-injector or a word about it. Expecting a 5-year-old to navigate a birthday party on his own was too much, too soon.
On the other hand, I worked with a mom who was fearful about letting her 13-year-old be in the same room with products processed with tree nuts. In that case, the parent needed to loosen the reins.
It can be challenging to find the sweet spot where a child learns to manage his allergies in a way that is just right. Here are some tips for allergy management to help keep you from asking too much or too little at various ages.
Babies: 0-2 years
In this period, all the responsibility belongs to the parents and caregivers. A mother once asked me what she could do to prepare her 18-month-old to stay safe at daycare. The answer is: nothing! Your child’s only task now is to become aware that not all foods are for her. Some tips for this stage:
- Identify foods that are “Safe”, “Not safe” or “Not for Charlotte”. Use simple explanations like, “This milk will make Charlotte sick.”
- Introduce the concept of “Charlotte’s milk” and “Daddy’s milk”.
- If you do not keep allergens in your home, point them out in photos.
- Do not rely on these lessons to keep your child from eating someone else’s food. It’s entirely up to the adults in the child’s life to protect her.
Preschoolers: 3-5 years
In this age group, children are just beginning to interact with the wider world without a parent. It’s important to have an environment where allergens are strictly supervised or removed completely. Some tips for this stage:
- Make sure your child understands what he can eat while away from you, whether it is his own snack or one the teacher approves.
- Teach your child about her allergy. Kids with multiple allergies can say: “I have food allergies,” rather than memorizing a long list.
- Explain symptoms of a reaction in kid terms: For example: if your mouth feels hot, or if it feels like something is stuck in your throat, etc.
- Make sure your child knows who to go to if he feels sick.
- Role-play with your child so she knows how to politely refuse food.
School age: 6-12
One of the challenges in this age group is that other adults may have expectations for which the child is not ready. In this period, there still needs to be support from adults. Some tips for this stage:
- Allow the child to take on responsibilities. A child in this range can usually be trusted to: take his own safe treat to a party and carry his auto-injectors. But you will want to ensure that his auto-injectors are with him and an adult is aware and trained to recognize and treat an allergic reaction.
- Be consistent with the unbreakable allergy rules (e.g. always carry epi injectors, only eat food with labels), while allowing flexibility in other areas.
- Find ways to discreetly accommodate. By third grade, most kids do not want to be singled out.
- Learn to read labels together. Explain precautionary warnings (“may contains”) and the importance of trusted brands.
- Investigate restaurants, activities and products with your child to help her work through safety issues.
Most parents have done a great deal of work to pave the way for their children. During the teen years, we prepare them to take the reins. Some tips for this stage:
- Encourage your teen to select restaurants, order food, visually inspect it and send it back if needed. When the taco meat has a sauce he doesn’t recognize, he has to stop and ask.
- Advise your teen of the need to disclose her allergies to a few trusted friends. In an emergency, friends can help, but only if they are aware.
- Help your child evaluate risk: If his friends are going out for Chinese food, ask: Would it be best to meet them afterward? Should he suggest another restaurant? Or opt out completely?
- Notice areas of competence. If your daughter always has her auto-injector, stop reminding her and praise her instead.
If we expect too much from our children, we can endanger them. If we ask too little, they won’t be equipped to manage on their own. Above all, be honest about what stage they’re at. Then you can adjust expectations and find an approach that’s just right at every age.
Gina Clowes is a certified life coach and consultant who helps parents and schools advocate for children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, a support community serving thousands worldwide.