ONCE at a neighborhood party my older son Steven, then 5 years old, kept bringing my son Daniel (allergic to wheat and other allergens, and then 18 months) upstairs to where the adults were congregating.
The first time he did it, I helped Daniel back to the basement where the kids were playing. The second time, I scolded Steven, telling him the kids are supposed to be playing in the basement.
“Mom!” he said, “there are pretzels all over the place down there!” At only 5 years old, Steven spotted the danger that I overlooked and protected his little brother.
The protective sibling scenario is familiar to many food allergy parents. I’ve heard similar stories from parents about the protectiveness, compassion and other positive qualities in their children.
Conversely, studies show that siblings of children with health issues can struggle with feelings of anger, resentment and fear. But how can we as parents make sure that each child feels special and their needs aren’t overlooked?
Don’t Push Your Child into a Parental Role
It’s tempting to create a little parent substitute. But keep in mind your child’s age and the typical responsibilities for the age group. Asking your 6-year-old daughter to keep an eye on her little brother while you are in the shower is one thing, taking on child-care duty during the family holiday party is too much.
Watch Your Language
Imagine the effect of hearing: “She could have died today!” Parents do need to convey the life-threatening aspects of food allergies to adult caregivers, and using blunt and honest language may be necessary. However, with children, we need to proceed carefully. Once that indelible impression is made, it’s extremely difficult to erase.
Find Food Freedom
Family rules may mean that certain foods are off-limits, but consider “cheat and eat” outings with your non-allergic son or daughter. While healthy foods are a priority in our family, I put my rigidity to the side and took my son Steven to the local Dunkin’ Donuts every Sunday, a tradition that lasted for many years.
Don’t Give Too Much Rope
We may feel guilty that our kids in food allergy families did not experience the stress-free, spontaneous childhood that we imagined for them. Because of that, we may ease up on rules and expectations of them. But excusing poor behavior won’t help. Instead, foster resilience. Allow them their own ways of overcoming challenges.
Because of the food allergy management, rules for safety and inclusion of the child with food allergies are of utmost importance, and you may choose to compromise on others. Perhaps drinking extra Cokes and staying up late during the family vacation is permissible.
Praise Maturity and Empathy
The sibling of your allergic child may often miss out on yummy treats that are completely safe for her. So when you notice your non-allergic child being understanding as you walk by the cookies and cakes at the church bake sale, tell him or her! “That must have been hard to go by those goodies without a fuss. That was very mature behavior.” We’re often so focused on the challenges our allergic child faces, we don’t see how often our other children make sacrifices (voluntary or not).
Turn the Tables
At times, you may decide to focus on your other child. For example, my son Daniel was allergic to milk and wheat, and there was no way we were going to indulge in a hot, cheesy pizza in front of him. My son Steven balked at this. Finally, when he was about 12, I decided he could have his own pizzas delivered. Daniel was curious and perhaps a little jealous, but he adjusted quickly. For too many years, I was denying Steven something he could have safely because I wanted to protect Daniel emotionally.
Walk in Their Shoes
What is the most painful part of your non-allergic child’s life? What is it like to go out to a restaurant? On vacation? A holiday? It’s only in hindsight that some parents see that we may have expected too much of our non-allergic children. Worse, we may minimize the trials of our other children, and it’s often only later that we see that their issues were just as real. Just for today, put all of your focus on your other child (or children). Appreciate who they have become, and all that they do. Let them know how much you love them for all of it.
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.