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Helping Children with Food Allergies Become Independent

In my last article, I talked about how we develop confidence in our children despite the natural cautiousness that comes with lifelong food allergies. This time, I want to look at the next step – maintaining the safety of your child once they start leaving the nest and going out into the world on their own.

Many parents of a child with a deadly food allergy are likely to be familiar with the story of a 13 year old girl who died at camp following exposure to peanuts, even after 3 injections of epinephrine. We all know that this is a possibility and live in fear that it will happen to our children – it is certainly a horror story for any parent. We all want our children to be able to go to school, camps and play dates without fear of a food reaction and possible death.

It creates a huge amount of stress and anxiety about providing food for a child with severe food allergies. In many situations people would rather wait for the parents to feed the child for fear of feeding them any food that could make them ill. Even in my own family, I see other people get very stressed (and even afraid) when they are in charge of feeding my son.

As a mom and a professional in natural medicine, I am calmer and more comfortable about feeding my child. For one reason, I do all of the grocery shopping, so I’m familiar with which products and companies are safe; even at restaurants I feel comfortable ordering foods I know to be safe for my child – I’ve been doing it for years, it’s second nature to me.

But what about when he’s not at home? What about when he’s at a friend’s house or a camp and is hungry? What about when he would like to participate in a meal not prepared by, or reviewed by, mom or dad? This is when it gets scary for us parents.

When you are doing all of the shopping and cooking, you know the products that are safe for your child but other people may not be so comfortable or  familiar with your child’s food allergies and mistakes can happen. Even people with the best intentions, who take the greatest of care, can make a mistake.

My family was making a birthday cake for me last weekend. They were very conscientious about getting ingredients that were safe for my son but someone inadvertently used cow’s milk butter to coat the cake pan. My son is allergic to dairy products and even this small amount of butter would have caused him to have an allergic reaction. Luckily, someone who knew that this would be a problem noticed the mistake and it was rectified but if they hadn’t, the safe birthday cake could have turned into an allergen emergency. The scary part was that I was in the kitchen at the time and had even reviewed the ingredient list prior to the cake being made. As parents, these accidents are the stuff nightmares are made of.

Stories of children dying due to food allergy exposure are enough to make any parent afraid of letting their child do anything unsupervised; there is a part of all of us parents of children with food allergies that want them to stay young so we can protect them forever.  However, this is not how nature intended it. As parents, it is our job to teach our children how to safely navigate the world, and for those of us dealing with the added complication of food allergies, it requires teaching our kids a special set of skills that will allow them to keep themselves safe.

It is scary but there are ways that you can allow your child to enjoy social activities without worrying about something horrible happening to them.

Practical Tips for Teaching Your Child How to Stay Safe

In an ideal scenario we would be able to send our children out with all the food they will need for the day or a particular social event. Going to school or day camp is usually easy as we have a good idea how much food they will need for the time they are there. However, as they get older, or plans for the day change, your child may find himself needing to eat a meal when you are not around to supervise. When that moment comes you want to have trained your child to be careful and find safe foods without your help.

We all know how strong peer pressure is and we don’t want our children to have their voices silenced because they are concerned with what their friends or classmates might think so here are some things you can teach your child to help them feel confident about  communicating their food requirements to their friends, friends’ parents or restaurant staff.

Tip 1: Have your child practice their “food allergy script”
For example, “I’m allergic to dairy and nuts. Does this food have dairy or nuts in it?”

Teach them to look someone in the eye and clearly and loud enough to be heard and say what they are allergic too.  Have them practice it in front of a mirror or family members. Then begin to practice it in public – restaurants are a great place to start. Communicating with the wait staff is an easy way to get them comfortable about talking about their food allergens with strangers.

Tip 2: Teach them to read ingredient lists
If your child is old enough, show them the ingredient lists on packaging and familiarize them with the spelling of their food allergens so they learn how to pick safe foods for themselves. Make sure they know all the common names for the allergens they have. For example dairy is not usually listed as dairy, it is called cow’s milk, butter,  cheese, whey powder, non-fat dried milk powder to name a few. Most food labels in the United States and abroad will now list the allergens contained in the product in bold type at the end of the ingredient list. Cow’s milk, eggs, wheat, soy and nuts are the most commonly listed allergenic ingredients.

Tip 3: Teach your children what kinds of foods might contain “hidden” allergens
I have taught my son which foods most commonly have hidden allergens in them and he is familiar with this category and knows to avoid them. For example ‘dairy’ is commonly found in chicken wings, hamburger/hotdog buns, commercial breads, cakes, cookies, donuts, chicken strip batters and most common children’s restaurant food.  He has learned to order foods without bread and knows that sometimes just plain grilled meat is the safest meal he can eat when we are out.

Tip 4: Test the food before eating it
With the exception of those children for whom even the least little exposure to a food particle will trigger a severe reaction, taking a small bite of food and waiting to see if they have any kind of reaction is a sure fire way of ensuring whether or not a dish is safe. For most children a good general rule of thumb is to take one little bite and wait 5 minutes to see if there’s a reaction.

This technique was taught to me by my son’s allergist and we use it a few times a year. In my son’s case exposure to his allergens will cause hives and tongue swelling within seconds. If he has a little bit and has no reaction within 5 minutes, we give him another small amount and wait another 5 minutes.  Usually, after 2 or 3 times we will know if he is going to react to the food. We only do this if we already have been told it is allergen-free or the ingredients don’t list an allergen.

For all but the most severely allergic kids this technique is invaluable as it helps them develop an independent approach to new or unfamiliar foods and helps them decide what is good/not good for them.

Tip 5: If in any doubt, don’t eat it
The most important skill a child with food allergies can learn is:

If you are not 100% sure, just don’t eat it!

This will be hard for them sometimes because it may mean not joining in with eating the birthday cake at a party or even missing out on a dinner that has been prepared for them. This is likely going to happen to them many times over the course of their life and will be disappointing each time, but will get easier. The bottom line is; it is better to be safe then have an allergic reaction.

While they learn this lesson, you can make sure they know that that they can go get a safe treat at another time. So, if they are at a birthday party or camp and they can’t share a food or snack that has been given, they can skip it and have a yummy, safe treat later.

Closing Thoughts

As parents, we want healthy, confident children who grow into adults who have the courage to explore the world and take on all the challenges life has to offer. We don’t want them to be timid and fearful, limited in their lives because they are scared of the risk of a potential food allergen exposure.

By teaching our children the skills to find safe, healthy foods to eat when we are not around will minimize their chances of having a food allergy exposure. All of the above techniques can lay a foundation to help keep your child safe, while still enabling them to have a social life; but they will also stop them feeling powerless and overly fearful about their allergies. In the long term, it will give them the confidence and independence they need to live a full and adventurous life while also helping to keep them safe.

To receive a free tip sheet on how to prevent and respond to allergic reactions that you can print and stick to your fridge, you can subscribe to my mailing list. You will also 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 also 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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