Thursday, August 16, 2012

Back to School with Food Allergies: Taking that Leap of Faith

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.


Anonymous said...

I can't thank you enough for all of the information and encouragement you share through your blog! As we prepare to send our daughter off to her first year of all-day school (first year of school lunches), I am feeling overwhelmed. Yet between your blog, new book, and references to reputable online resources, I feel as prepared as I can be. Now it's just a matter of prayer & taking that leap of faith! Thank you, again, for providing a one-stop shop for those of us still learning to navigate the world of children's food allergies...this means the world to my family!

Poker Chick said...

I remember that feeling. This year it's harder as she will now be eating in a cafeteria every day - not eating food we provide. Trusting someone else to cook for her is a huge leap of faith we were not quite ready for, a different challenge.

Wondering - in 6 years of school were there any reactions? What has been your experience?

Gabli said...

Oh how hard it is every year we take a leap of faith. I am not sure if the hard part is leaving her there or having to deal with the hundreds of questions each year from parents. Most parents are unhappy that there kids are stuck with my kid in a nut free room, but when allergies are severe, there is no price too small to pay.

Kim said...

Thanks so much for your blog and all that you write. I love reading the words of someone else who "gets it". My daughter still has one more year until she begins school, but I already cannot imagine letting that cute little face out of my sight! All of the what if's can be so hard on you. I figure we made it through a 2 morning per week preschool last year, this year she will be there 3 afternoons....hopefully by next September she will be ready to advocate for herself more clearly and firmly.