Helping Kids with Food Allergies
Receiving a diagnosis of a food allergy or a food sensitivity is a big deal. It can profoundly change so many aspects of your life, from what your kitchen looks like and where you go out to eat for dinner, to whether you can eat your favorite foods and how you’ll celebrate your birthday. This can be a giant transition for any adult. Now imagine that you’re a child, and you’ve just been diagnosed with a food sensitivity. Your doctor is asking you to take a food out of your diet, and that’s the point in the conversation where most of the kids in my office start crying. Which, I might add, is a completely understandable reaction. Let’s unpack some strategies for dealing with the most common stressors that can come along with a food allergy diagnosis.
SCENARIO: KID UPSET
“Why can’t I eat that?”
Your child will inevitably feel some degree of both sadness and anger at not being able to eat certain foods that they have really enjoyed. It’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings – yes, it is sad, and I get that you’re frustrated. Then let them do a bit of meal planning with you and choose a few foods from the grocery store that they can safely eat to give them a sense of agency. Working on new foods that the child hasn’t tried before may help them feel like they’re adding food options rather than just taking favorites away. Also, focus on the fact that eliminating the problem food(s) will make them feel better, physically, which is a reward in itself.
SCENARIO: BIRTHDAY PARTY WITH FRIENDS
“Why can’t you eat that?”
My daughter’s classroom at her preschool allows children to bring treats in for birthday celebrations, and there has been the occasion where my daughter was given orange slices while the other students ate cupcakes. Though there have been occasional tears, I have marveled at the resilience that my 3-year-old has developed, with her knowing that she’d rather opt out of cupcakes than deal with the physical pain they may cause. It can be stressful for kids when theirfriends and teachers make a big deal out of the fact that they have allergies, especially if the kids don’t feel equipped to answer questions about why they avoid certain foods. I recommend having frank conversations with your kids about how others don’t follow the same dietary guidelines they do. You can also role play a scenario or two with your kids so they feel prepared to respond with a “Thank you, but I don’t eat cow dairy because it makes my body not feel very good,” for example, to the questions that they’re sure to face.
SCENARIO: FAMILY DINNER WITH RELATIVES
“Surely one bit won’t hurt you.”
This line is always frustrating. Obviously one bite could extremely hurt you when it comes to food allergies. While these relatives are well-meaning, be sure to help your child understand that peer or family pressure should not be and excuse to compromise their health. It’s ok for them to tell the relative that no amount of bites is safe. I often encourage children to have one back-up snack with them in their pocket or bag during social gathering just in case there are no safe food options and they’re feeling pressured to eat something unsafe.
SCENARIO: TEACHER OFFERS SNACK TIME AT PRESCHOOL
“Do you want some of the delicious looking food?”
One of my very proudest parenting moments came recently when I overheard my middle child interrogating her preschool teach as the teach offered her some crackers. My daughter piped up, “But are these cow-dairy free? If no, then I cannot even have one.” Both my daughter and my son have very serious cow dairy sensitivities, and I am often concerned that I cannot protect them form all allergen exposure. It’s been extremely cool to see how much they understand and are able to advocate for themselves with a little couching from me and my husband. Your kid is absolutely capable of saying no and feeling their feeling and moving on while avoiding their food allergen. Be sure to have a follow-up conversation with the teacher in this situation, but also, I encourage you to praise your kid when they make good choices about avoiding their food allergens.
While these relatives are well-meaning, be sure to help your child understand that peer or family pressure should not be on excuse lo compromise their heal!h. It’s ok for them to tell the that no amount of bites is safe. I often encourage children to hove one back-up snack with them in their pocket or bog during social gatherings just in case there ore no safe food options and they’re feeling pressured to eat
There are important steps we can take to build social and emotional resilience in children with food allergies. First, teach your kids the right words and phrases to use with others. “I am allergic to gluten. Does this contain gluten?” is much more effective than “Can I eat this?”. Teach your children to be specific about their allergens and direct and clear with communicating. For example, cow dairy is more precise than ‘milk.’ Encourage your kids to he vocal with their needs and never eat something because it was served to them. I also recommend speaking with your kids about what symptoms they may develop when exposed to their allergen. This can help them to speak up lo friends, teachers, and waitstaff who may question the need for their allergen avoidance -and unfortunately this still happen even with the most well-meaning friends.
Second, model the behavior you want at home. Like with all parenting, how you practice al home is how kids will lend to show up in the world. If you permit kids to eat their allergen on occasion at home, they’ll likely think it’ fine to eat it sometimes when they’re out with friends. I find that children are most successful and serious about avoiding their allergen if their allergen is not present in their home kitchen. Be consistent with your support of their healthy eating habits and they’ll learn lo be consistent with their self-advocacy.
Third, give your kid the chance to practice speaking up for themselves when you are around. “Would you like to tell the server about your food allergy’?” This allow them to practice communicating their need to someone preparing their food while knowing that you’re there lo back them up or clarify if needed. This coaching is worth it; my children rarely need my support anymore.
Dietary allergen can be both socially and emotionally challenging for people of all ages, but with these tips and a lot of hugs and patience, your kid can successfully manage the conversation and communicate and advocate for their new dietary needs.
As always, consult a medical professional before beginning any new protocol.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Kelly Baker is a naturopathic physician and acupuncturist at Healthwise Integrative Medicine in Seattle (healthwise.rom}. She treats complex health conditions including celiac disease, with a focus on children and family care. Dr. Baker has followed a strict gluten-free diet for many year, making her uniquely aware of its challenges.