Since my daughter with severe food allergies is beginning middle school this year, I've been quite nostalgic lately thinking back to her first day of kindergarten and what that was like for us. In a word: scary. Let me explain.
The year before kindergarten, my daughter experienced her first anaphylactic reaction to a peanut butter sandwich. Then she was diagnosed with a tree nut allergy. A few months later, she started experiencing asthma due to seasonal allergies. It felt like a triple threat, and a lot to absorb.
At the time my daughter first entered school, I felt like I still had a lot of unanswered questions and unknowns that I was facing. I had been fortunate to find a nut-free preschool for her to attend, but elementary school was an entirely new world. It was a place where many of her allergens would be present each day, in one way or another.
Once you start heading down the slippery slope of "what ifs?" you can find yourself in for some serious stress. For example, I wondered if my daughter was going to be exposed to constant allergy triggers and possible reactions. I wondered: How much allergen in the environment would be too much? Then I started projecting into the future: As her school career went on, would she be able to participate in birthday parties, extracurricular activities and play dates? Would her school life be a happy one or one filled with allergic reactions and stress? Would today be the day I get "the call" telling me there was a reaction?
I look at old pictures of my daughter back in kindergarten and I think to myself: How did I let that little face out of my sight? She looks so small, so vulnerable, especially when I look at her now, so grown-up and poised. I imagine that many of you are thinking similar things about your kids, as you send them off to school carrying backpacks that are nearly bigger than they are. It's not easy to hand over care of your child to others when they deal with serious food allergies, especially when they are very young.
This is one reason why I believe so strongly in teaching kids to be their own best advocates. As parents, we do our best to be informed about everything, but sometimes that is impossible. If you teach your child to question foods and refuse anything that isn't approved by you, that is a huge step in keeping them safe. Of course you must work with the school, too--that's absolutely crucial. However, teaching kids to stand up for themselves and self-manage can never begin too early in my opinion. I've found that this approach has definitely helped my daughter throughout elementary school.
And now comes the really hard part. Once we've taken care of our must-haves for school (like our medical forms, formal written health plans for our kids, communication with school staff and the like), then what?
Eventually, there comes a time to do the most uncomfortable thing of all -- taking that leap of faith that you have taught your kids well, communicated with your school and that it will be OK. It can feel like a very scary leap. In fact, I still feel like I take "the leap" each year and we've been dealing with this for 8 years. Don't beat yourself up if you feel uncertain or unsure. But if you know you've taken all the safety steps you can, it's good to feel happy and excited for your kids, too.
I wish all of you the very best for a wonderful school year whether your child is just beginning school, starting a new school or just starting a new grade. Let us know how it goes for you! We are all in this together.