Food allergy awareness starts at home

Joshua Feblowitz is a Thrive contributor who has lived with severe food allergies his whole life. In the following post he has advice for parents on how they can empower their food-allergic children to play a bigger role in their managing their allergies.

Joshua and his allergist at Children’s Hospital Boston, Lynda Schneider, MD

Growing up with food allergies, I always had to be aware of my condition, but felt confident that it wouldn’t hold me back. If I was visiting a friend’s house, I could pack a special snack. If foods were unfamiliar, I could read ingredient labels and recognize what was safe. And if there was a class party, thanks to a little extra work by mother… allergen-free treats for everyone! I was sure there wasn’t a situation that my parents and I couldn’t handle.

Today, I can appreciate that what appeared so simple back then was the result of how hard my parents worked each and every day. They were constantly vigilant about ingredients, but they also provided a world of support that went far beyond food. I know now that my allergies seemed manageable because they were looking out for not just my safety, but also my well-being.

As all parents of food-allergic children know, caring for them isn’t just about reading ingredient labels and cooking special meals. Equally important and challenging is the task of helping your child adjust and feel confident in managing their allergies themselves. In honor of Food Allergy Awareness Week (May 8-13), I talked with Jennifer LeBovidge, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, to learn more about how parents can help their children cope with a diagnosis of food allergies. Here are some things you can do to help your child adjust:

  • Follow safety rules and routines consistently. The most important thing for kids with food allergies is to understand the rules they need to follow in order to stay safe. “For kids of all ages, it’s important to consistently follow routines,” says LeBovidge. “When allergies are involved, routines like reading labels, checking ingredients and bringing the EpiPen everywhere are very important.” The more your child sees you modeling these routines, the more they will internalize them and feel comfortable with them.
  • Practice allergy management skills to avoid anxiety. Use role-playing to prepare for common situations that may arise such as ordering at a restaurant, explaining allergies to a friend, or politely declining a potentially dangerous food. Practice using an EpiPen trainer so your child recognizes their emergency medicine and understands what might happen if a reaction does occur. The advanced preparation will help your child feel safe and prepared.
  • Work with your child on food allergy management. As children get older, it’s important to listen to their preferences and involve them in the problem-solving process. Work together to create a plan for each school event, party and play date: should they bring a safe snack? Call ahead? Bring food to share with everyone? Or just skip the eating part? “The more involved they are, the more confident they will feel following their plan,” says LeBovidge.
  • Help older children manage concerns about fitting in. The social part of food allergy management can be the most important factor for older children and adolescents. “A real concern is a child not wanting their allergy to be a big deal,” says LeBovidge. “They may feel more embarrassed about asking for ingredients and reading labels in front of their friends.” Research the places your teen is likely to hangout so you can make a preemptive food allergy management plan based on his or her surroundings. Also, make sure that your child’s friends are aware of the food allergies and treatments in advance; in the event of an attack, they may be able to assist in your absence.

    Image: Flickr/Dan4th
  • Convey the right message about your child’s allergies. There is always a period of adjustment for a child following a diagnosis of food allergies. Some children may not take the changes seriously enough while others may become overly anxious about staying safe. That’s why it’s especially important to be mindful about how you talk about your child’s food allergies. “Whatever information you’re conveying to your child, you want to be calm about it, so try to have a matter-of-fact tone,” she says. “But keep the focus on consistent safety routines and rules so that kids really get the message that food allergies are serious but manageable.”

At the end of the day, it’s all about setting a good example and communicating with your child to keep him or her involved in their own allergy management. “Parents have such an ability to make an impact in terms of the approach that they take,” says LeBovidge. “It may not always seem like it, but your kids are listening to you, they’re soaking it up. If you show your child how to be safe, through both your actions and words, you’ll help them internalize good habits that will stay with them throughout life.”

For more information about Food Allergy Awareness Week (May 8 – 13), visit The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.