Guest Contributor: Tips on Empowering Children With Food Allergies
I have a wonderful Christmas Gift for my readers. Dena Friedel, a Food Allergy Support Group Leader from Columbus, Ohio, was kind enough to let me post a terrific piece she wrote. Originally intended for the FAAN internal Support Group Leaders network, Dena’s advice is so helpful that I wanted to share it with a wider audience. Dena offers some very practical advice for teaching your children how to manage their food allergies. Her age-appropriate teaching tips are especially useful, and I love her emphasis on teaching by doing, learning by example, and modeling safe behavior for your child.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Dena. Wishing you all a very Happy and Healthy Holiday Season.–Kathy Franklin
By Dena Friedel, My Food Allergy Support Group – Columbus, OH
It is imperative that we, as parents, teach children to live safely in a world with their allergens. It is equally important that we teach them that their allergies are just one piece of what makes them who they are. We do not want their allergies to define them.
The best way to do this is to lead by example. Remember, they are listening and watching everything you do. If you start when they are young, all of the things you do to protect them will become second nature to them. At the same time, they will pick up on your fears, so you must be careful not to allow your fears to get out of control and prevent you (or them) from living life to its fullest. This condition is life changing. It is overwhelming and frustrating, but it is manageable.
Here are some everyday habits that should be worked into your daily schedule and become the “normal” way of doing things:
- Always carry emergency medications! If you forget them, go back, no matter how inconvenient it may be. Accidents are never planned.
- Read the label, every time.
- Show good habits, such as wiping hands or surfaces, asking questions or reading labels.
- Encourage open conversation about food allergies. Do not keep it a secret or act like it is something to be ashamed of. It is not!
- Don’t downplay reactions or the importance of telling someone when you need help.
- Be consistent. Once you make a rule, stick to it.
- Show your children that they can do anything with extra work and a plan.
- Don’t tell your children more than they need to know, until they truly need to know.
- Learn from mistakes. They will happen. How can you prevent them from happening again?
- Take anxiety seriously and seek help when necessary.
Here are some age-appropriate ways to empower children with food allergies to learn how to take care of themselves. All children mature differently, and this is meant to be a guide; use your own judgment as to when each item should be introduced to your child. The idea is to build their confidence and eventually shift the responsibility of their food allergies to them. It is a building process.
- No eating a food unless Mom/Dad gives it to you.
- Washing hands or using wipes before and after eating.
- Keep hands away from face and out of mouth.
- Don’t share food, drinks, or utensils.
- Don’t eat food directly off of a table or surface. Always use a plate, napkin, out of container, etc.
- Say “no thank you” to food that is offered by anyone other than Mom/Dad.
- Show pictures of allergens (in different forms) so they learn how to recognize them.
- Read children’s books about food allergies to them.
Early School Age
- Wash hands frequently, not just before and after eating, but after returning to the classroom from specials such as art, P.E., music, recess, or an assembly where shared equipment was used.
- Work on simple label reading. At this point, just identify the allergen itself so they start to see it written (i.e., peanut, milk, etc.).
- Teach your child the importance of telling someone when help is needed, and that it is okay to ask for help.
- Teach your child that everyone has something that makes them different. Tell them what makes you different. It is okay to be different.
- Begin educating peers/classmates. This is the best way to build compassion, support, and inclusion from the very beginning of the school years.
- Teach your child to always have a buddy at school; don’t go into the bathroom or walk to the nurse’s office alone if you are not feeling well.
- Introduce cross-contact; explain what it is and how it can happen. Your child must understand that just because a food looks safe, doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.
Older School Age
- Don’t be ashamed. Food allergies are not a secret. Explain the importance of having friends watch out for them.
- Have your child start carrying their emergency medications. For some this may be at school, for others when they are going out to play; situations will vary depending on the child.
- Begin to allow your child to explain their food allergy to restaurant staff.
- Teach a more in-depth understanding of cross-contact and when it is a risk factor.
- Teach your child to use good judgment in situations where his/her personal safety is at risk. Role playing may be helpful.
- Encourage your child to participate in menu planning, shopping, and cooking at home.
- Do not tolerate bullying! Your child must talk to an adult if bullying is occurring.
- Teach your teen to always have their emergency medications with them! It is typically teens and young adults who take risks and succumb to fatal allergic reactions. They are at an even greater risk if they do not learn how to manage on their own.
- Encourage your teen to always have a friend who knows about their food allergy and who can speak for them or help them if an allergic reaction is suspected.
- Discuss peer pressure. This is serious in so many ways!
- Discuss the risks associated with dating and alcohol or drug use. Judgment may be impaired when love or drugs are involved. Food allergies add another level of fear to these issues.
Now comes the hardest part – you have to trust them to do the right thing! You have spent their entire life preparing them for this! You can do it! I know you can! (I just hope I can!)
Dena Friedel’s daughter was diagnosed with food allergies at age two. Dena has been working diligently and proactively to keep her safe; while at the same time, keeping her grounded and living a normal life.
Dena founded “My” Food Allergy Support Group in February 2006, and is Executive Director. It remains the only group of its kind in the Columbus area and currently supports 170 families. In April of this year, she was selected by FAAN to receive the Mariel C. Furlong Award for Making a Difference in Community Service. As a certified Safe @ School Trainer though FAAN, a Certified PAC (Protect Allergic Children) through the ELL Foundation and an Anaphylaxis Community Expert through the Allergy and Asthma Network, Dena has trained schools, daycare facilities, food allergic families and several community organizations on keeping food allergic children safe. She also serves on the Support Group Advisory Council for FAAN, an important part of their Education and Outreach Department. She recently served on the committee that wrote the District Policy and Guidelines for Managing Life-Threatening Food Allergies for the Olentangy School District in Ohio. Dena is part of the committee that brought the Walk for Food Allergies to Columbus in both 2010 and 2011. This year she also served as the Honorary Chairperson.