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Food Allergies: What to Do When Just One Child Has Allergies

In the last few articles in this series I have addressed a few of the psycho-emotional aspects that arise when raising a child with deadly food allergies. We’ve looked at how to develop confidence and independence in children with food allergies, and how and when to teach your child to administer their own Epi-Pen independently.

Severe food allergies can be stressful for a family and especially stressful for the children – those with allergies and those without – and it can be hard to make sure that neither the allergic child nor their non-allergic siblings feel singled out or hard done by. This week, I want to talk about how we can balance the needs of both without disrupting family harmony.

So, what happens when one child wants an ice cream cake for her birthday, but her brother can’t eat it? Or, what about when you go to a restaurant, and there is no suitable dessert for the allergenic child – does she miss out or do you all forego dessert? These are just two of the many scenarios in which someone will be left feeling resentful or sad. If it happens repeatedly, it can cause strife among siblings. What can we, as parents, do to minimize these feelings of resentment?

Depending on when the allergies start, as well as the birth order of your children, these problems can be mild, or they can be very troublesome. For example, in my family my first-born was diagnosed with food allergies before his younger brother was born, by which time I had already made the adjustments needed to the pantry. This has made things easier because the foods he has grown up with are safe for his brother – he sees these foods as normal. This summer, when we had guests visiting us, I served our usual brand of gluten-, dairy- and nut-free frozen waffles. This is the only brand we have ever used; both of my boys love them and neither of them feels they are being deprived. However, none of the other children would eat them because they were use to a different brand that had both dairy and wheat in them.  To these children our allergy-safe waffles didn’t taste good.

“That’s Not Fair!”

It’s a complaint that all parents hear all too often. When you add food allergies into the mix, things can seem even less fair – to everyone! The difficulty with food allergies is that both the children with allergies and their non-allergic siblings can feel like it is not fair. “It’s not fair” that my brother can have birthday cake served at a friend’s party and I have to bring a special cupcake. Or, perhaps “it’s not fair” that I can’t have dessert at the restaurant because my sister is allergic to all the desserts on the menu. This can cause friction among siblings if we can’t find techniques to address this early on in their lives.

Supporting the Child with Allergies

One of our main jobs as parents is to keep our kids safe as well as making them feel safe. We can do this by keeping them away from all the foods that cause allergic reactions and teaching them what they can eat and how to read ingredient lists. There is a part of human nature that always wants what we can’t have and. for the child with food allergies, the idea that they are missing out on the best tasting foods because of their allergies can be a potential concern for the future. We don’t want them trying foods they are not supposed to have when we are not around so we also need to help them find strategies to avoid the temptation of “forbidden food”. At the same time, we don’t want to make them feel like misfits or “problem children”. I find one of the best ways to support my son is to make his special allergenic food seem like normal everyday food; I buy non-dairy pancakes and waffle mixes, alternative milks, non-dairy chicken strips and non-dairy ice creams. I have researched all of our local restaurants and know which ones serve safe dishes and I have resources for desserts and special treats. As a naturopath, I never thought I would say this but don’t feel as if you have to be neurotic about everything needing to be “healthy” 100% of the time. Children can have the occasional “junk food”, just so long as it’s SAFE in terms of their allergies. I don’t stop my son eating foods he is not allergic to; I just make sure he has eaten a nutritious meal or snack beforehand. If he asks for a treat I make sure to not restrict it too often.

Supporting the Child Who Doesn’t Have Allergies

It is important to encourage non-allergenic children to support their allergenic siblings. I have been training my youngest son to wash his hands immediately after consuming any foods that his brother is allergic too. For his whole life I have been training him to do this and, at the age of five, he does it routinely. However, I also don’t want him to feel like we are always accommodating his brother and that if his brother didn’t have food allergies his own food choices would be better.  As I’ve already said, my youngest child’s diet has always been primary designed around his brother’s food allergies.  The meals I cook, the snacks he has, and the restaurants we go to are all dictated by his brother’s dietary needs. It’s normal for him because it has been so his whole life but for families  where their diet was changed by a food allergy or celiac disease diagnosis, things will be very different and they will have to find ways of introducing the changes as painlessly as possible for everyone..

Of course, it would be very unfair for your non-allergic child to miss out on the things their sibling is allergic to but it would be equally unfair to give one child a treat and exclude the other. However, I’ve found a few ways round this so my youngest son doesn’t miss out.

  1. I put things in his school lunchbox that he likes but his brother can’t eat so he still gets to enjoy the things he likes
  2. I take him out for special treats to restaurants we can’t go to with his brother so he can choose exactly what he wants without being ‘in his brothers face’
  3. I try to get him involved in shopping for, and cooking, meals his brother can eat. He feels good about helping his brother and therefore has fewer reasons for frustration or resentment.

Bullying, Taunting and Teasing

We hear a lot about bullying in school and on the school bus, other children taunting our allergic children about their differences. This kind of ‘food bullying’ could also happen in the home as an extension of the normal teasing that happens between brothers and sisters and, as parents we want to at least be aware of this. While this kind of taunting could be intentionally mean, it can also happen inadvertently – I have witnessed my youngest son holding a ‘forbidden food’ in front of his brother saying, “Here, have a bite.” He wasn’t doing it out of malice; he just wanted to share something delicious with his big brother.

How you teach your children to break the habit of taunting/teasing their allergic sibling will vary with parenting style. I make sure I use a strong firm voice and remind my son of the consequences of his brother consuming the food.

Witnessing an anaphylactic reaction and how quick it develops, and how severe it can be, will leave a strong impression and will help them understand the seriousness of the situation. My youngest has witnessed only mild food reactions but I remind him how ill his brother will get when he eats his food allergens and that he will have to go to the hospital.

Closing Thoughts

Just one person’s severe food allergies are stressful for the whole family and affect everyone’s diet, restaurant decisions and possibly even their travel plans. It’s a fine balancing act between keeping our children safe from the things they are allergic to and letting them feel they have control over their food choices.  We need to be sensitive to everyone’s dietary needs and make sure nobody feels their options are limited by another family member. We need to make sure that everyone feels they have a voice to pick the foods, restaurants and treats they like without feeling restricted by, or teased by, other people’s choices.

There are many factors that affect these things; the age of onset of food allergies, where the allergenic child sits in the family (are they the youngest, the oldest or are they in the middle) and the number of things they are allergic to. The goal is to balance life for the whole family by finding things that everybody likes. Make non-allergenic food seem like “normal” food; make each child feel special; give them “alone time” with you when they can have special food treats just for them. As all parents of allergic children know, it’s a delicate balancing act. I hope that, taking all of these things into consideration will help you find the balance between keeping your allergic child safe and not causing strife or resentment in their siblings.

To receive a free printable tip sheet on how to prevent and respond to allergic reactions that you can stick to your fridge, you can subscribe to my mailing list. By doing so, you will also make sure you receive all future blog posts direct to your inbox.

If you would like support with managing your child’s food allergies, you might be interested in my special comprehensive program.

I have a practice in Issaquah, Washington and appointments can be conducted either in my office or, for those who don’t live in the area, by phone or Skype.

In the meantime, look for my next article as I continue this series on how to raise children living with deadly food allergies.


Dr. Maura Scanlan

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