My phone rings and it’s my son’s school on the caller ID. My immediate thought is that he has been given something containing nuts. Unfortunately my intuition is correct and we spend the rest of the day in the doctors’ rooms. Whilst birthday rings and baker’s days are usually a fun part of school activities for most children, in our household they exacerbate the stress around managing life threatening food allergies.
Some allergies are temporary annoyances; some are daily discomforts, and some can instantly threaten your life. Such allergies can make ordinary experiences – like birthday parties or eating out – extremely nerve-wracking.
All children should be given the opportunity to make new friends, develop independence, expand their social skills, and improve their problem-solving skills in social situations. As a parent of a food-allergic child it is tempting to shield him from adversity and risk, however my goal is to provide him as normal a childhood experience as possible. Isolation at meal times or policies that result in limiting the child’s participation in celebrations could result in increased social isolation and associated feelings of depression or social anxiety. So it is important to provide an inclusive environment for the food-allergic child to learn to navigate and manage their own food allergies.
With some planning, support, and self-care, you can reduce the stress associated with allergy management.
- Think outside of the box.
When you’re tempted to say no to an activity, consider finding a way to make it work. If your child receives a party pack or goes trick-or-treating, consider trading unsafe food for safe treats or non-food items. Supply his teacher with safe substitutes for school events so that he is not excluded from activities.
- Have a plan.The single most helpful thing you can do to reduce your allergy-related anxiety is to know what to do if your child’s allergy is triggered.
- Practice your lines.Prepare a stock phrase for asking about the content of dishes, or responding when you’re offered something you can’t eat. Be honest, straightforward, and impactful.
- Prepare ahead of time.When you have social commitments you can’t avoid, do some advance research about your destination. Read menus online or call the hosts ahead of time to let them know about your / your child’s food allergies and to ask what they’ll be serving. Offer to bring a dish you can eat. When going on holiday, locate the nearest clinic. Do whatever you need to do to feel relaxed and safe.
- Don’t confuse possible with probable.
There are millions of people worldwide living with food allergies – traveling, eating out, going to school and to work. Life-threatening reactions are rare, so focus on what is likely to happen – your child will be just fine with precautions – rather than what could go wrong.
- Find a middle ground.
Being overly restrictive on activities such as eating out may lower stress in the short term, however they can leave your child longing for a taste of “normal” life and won’t empower your child to manage his allergies safely in situations where the allergens may be present. Consider finding a safe middle ground such as finding a restaurant that could accommodate your child.
- Get back out there.
It’s tempting to tighten the reins if your child has a serious reaction. After my son experienced anaphylaxis at nursery school it was tempting to keep him at home but I knew the best thing for him would be for things to get back to normal as soon as possible and to use this experience as a learning opportunity for both him and the school.
- Get counselling.If your allergy anxieties are keeping you at home for fear of encountering allergic triggers, or they’re diminishing your quality of life in other ways, professional counselling may be your best way forward. Finding or creating a support group with other severe allergy sufferers may also help.