Monday, June 13, 2011

Food Allergies: Teaching Your Child to Self-Advocate Pays Off

I wanted to share a story with you since I know that many of us worry about teaching our kids to handle their allergies on their own. When your little one is diagnosed with severe food allergies (usually this happens at a very young age)it can be difficult to imagine them ever managing it on their own.

From personal experience as well as what others share with me, I've found that teaching a child to manage the allergy should begin immediately. Obviously you don't want to scare a tiny child with too many details, but emphasizing "safe" and "unsafe" foods and teaching kids how and what to avoid is something you can do right away. Two really good resources for helping you to do this are the Beyond a Peanut flashcards and the young children's book "Ally the Allergic Elephant" by Nicole Smith (who I met recently, along with her awesome teen son, Morgan.)

My family used these resources as well as positive encouragement and reinforcement with my daughter from the time we knew of her allergy at age 4. Her own memory of her severe allergic reaction (that clued us into the fact that she had an allergy at all) certainly keeps her on track, but our family's consistency with regard to managing the allergy has also helped. Like many of you, I've often felt like a broken record, repeating myself over and over, but now that my daughter is 11 years old, she's taken over a lot of the ownership of her allergy management.

Case in point: This past weekend, my daughter attended a Taylor Swift concert with her cousins in Detroit. Since the concert was held at Ford Field (a football stadium) of course peanuts were being sold by vendors. Luckily, there weren't a lot of peanuts around her seating area, and it was nowhere near as "peanutty" as a baseball game, but she told me later that she was a little concerned.

Since we knew this would probably be an issue, she asked to eat before going to the concert and while there, only ordered a Coke. Let me tell you, she could have cared less about eating at the concert. It was her first "grownup" concert so it was all about Taylor Swift and the experience of seeing her.

What really impressed me was that she was careful to only order a "bottled" Coke from a vendor at a stationary location in the arena. Why? She noticed that the vendors selling food/drinks in the stands were serving peanuts as well as "open," already-poured drinks and she didn't want to risk the cross contact. This was something she spotted on her own and brought up without prompting. She was right to be concerned because the vendor-sold items did carry a risk that was better to avoid altogether. She also carried her own hand wipes and cleaned her hands--you can't have too many hand wipes when out and about with a food allergy.

Do I wish she didn't have to be so concerned? Of course. But this kind of proactive thinking (along with eating before the show) is what's going to keep her safe and healthy as she moves to even more independence. It wasn't a big deal to her--by now, it's just part of life and it doesn't faze her.

This is such a great point for a child to reach. It doesn't mean I don't worry anymore, but since I can see her making the right choices, I feel good about her doing things on her own.

For those of you who have very young kids facing food allergies, just keep playing the "cracked record" and one day, your kids will be telling you how they can stay safe.

And that's a huge point to reach, because let's face it: no one is going to be as concerned about food allergies as you are (or your kids are). They have to self-advocate and the sooner they learn, the better for everyone.


Cynthia H. said...

I agree with just keep repeating the allergens and keep the kids in on the conversations no matter their age. Our son had his 1st allergy testing at age 8 months. He is now 4. Just in conversation and talking about what foods he can eat/not eat he was able to recite his list by age 3. He's allergic to milk, eggs, oats, peanuts, tree nuts, and shell fish.

I found your blog through facebook.

Katy did said...

I found your blog through the Story about the Chicago allergy study. My son is 10 years old and has had food allergies pretty much his whole life. He was in the NICU for 2 months after birth and then had his first hospitalization for resp. distress when he was only 4 months old. From here he was in and out of the hospital numorous times because of wheezing and respiratory distress. He was put through every test imaginalbe, except allergy testing even though I had suggested it several times. Finally, at about 9 months old, during one of his many hospitalizations, the doctors listened to me and did allergy testing. The tests came back positive for pet dander, dairy, eggs,and peanuts. I was exclusively breastfeeding, but the dairy I was consuming was affecting him! I stopped eating all dairy products and my son slowly started to have less and less hospitalizations! He went through a year at age four to five of being allergic to wheat also.

He is now allergic to peanuts and dairy amongst many enviromental allergens. We carry and epipen and my son is an amazing boy! He has NEVER in his life been in a grocery store and asked for a candy bar. He has always been taught about the foods that are dangerous to him and has grown up "just knowing" certain foods he can not have. He has never asked why or begged or cried. He also has two older brothers who have no allergies and like to eat EVERYTHING;-) They too, have learned that if they are having a food containing peanuts they have to eat it away from him and then wash their hands and brush their teeth. They have also learned to read labels on foods as had my son with the allergy. He makes me proud everyday, and gives me a new outlook on life! When you think of the obstacles he has already overcome and the ones he will face in his future...he is AMAZING, as is every child with food allergies.

One thing I have learned from having a child with food allergies, is if I am bringing snacks to school or a ball game, I always check to see if there are other children with food allergies and find out what I can bring for them. I know the importance to the child to feel accepted and not feel left out. Before having a child with food allergies I never thought of this! I know God gave him to me this way for a reason and so far everything we have learned from his has had a positive affect on our lives, although it has not always been easy. Food allergies are a serious and sometimes fatal illness for children and it is so important to get that information out there to the people who do not understand it...I know I was one of them people once.