Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Food Allergy Post-Thanksgiving Wrap Up: Coping with Family and Food Allergies

With Thanksgiving behind us, now is a good time to review how things went so that we can anticipate the winter holidays and how to safely participate in family events. Family gatherings can be stressful for those with food allergies as well as for those hosting our families.

It's a rare food allergy family that faces smooth sailing with regard to holiday gatherings involving food, at least at first. Most of us have run into difficulties at one time or another. Common scenarios include: being "uninvited" from a family dinner due to food allergies, lack of understanding from family members about hosting people with severe food allergies (they feel like a kid with food allergies is too fragile to be around) and isolation due to family members not understanding the real dangers that food allergies present, forcing us to stay away from the gathering.

Even though I will always try to find a positive solution that involves inclusion with family, I know  this approach doesn't always work. Not everyone is going to be willing or able to cope with our kids who have food allergies. If that happens, we do the best we can, either by hosting meals ourselves or by opting out of certain food-focused events and finding other ways to connect with family.

However, I feel like some of the problems we encounter can be either minimized or avoided with some open discussion. What is at the heart of someone telling you not to come to their house for a holiday meal, because it's "not safe?" Ask yourself: are you giving a message that the responsibility for the safety of your child is not your responsibility? Or are other people simply interpreting it that way? Take a look at what you're saying to each other and how you're saying it.

Sometimes people hear one thing when we say another. I'm no relationship expert, but when it comes to food allergies and family relationships, many times there is something going on between the lines that has nothing to do with what is being discussed.

Fear is a factor. While we want compassion for our situation at the holidays, we need to feel equal compassion for those who don't live with food allergies each day. It's a long process of education, so if you feel like you haven't been treated very well this year, give it time. Have a talk with your family members who handle the food. What can you do to help?

For example, even though I've dealt with food allergies for years, if you told me to host a dairy-free Thanksgiving, I'd be fearful of cross-contamination and ingredients because I don't shop, cook or deal with dairy allergies each day.

Looking at this way, I  can see how others might be afraid and have a lot of  questions. If family  are open to talking about it, try to have a calm discussion about what the problem is with making the holiday allergy-friendly.

Here are some things you might want to discuss:

What do you think it means when we ask you if the meal can be allergy-friendly? Do you interpret that as the entire meal is available to the allergic diner, or just part of it? Can we work out a compromise that will be OK with both of us?
This isn't about treading on tradition, it's about wanting to participate in a family event. Take the other person's suggestions and feelings into account regarding food. They might not understand that you view food differently than they do. For those with food allergies, food isn't a fun, happy tradition if it contains an allergen. It's a threat to health and well-being. It has nothing to do with them, personally. Many people don't understand this and feel like you're "ruining" their meal if you request, say, no Chex mix with peanuts on the table.

How can I help with this meal? Would you feel better if I brought my own food? Would you be offended? Why? Be sure to explain that you love this person and their cooking, but that food allergies are a medical condition and not a food preference, so they require appropriate caution. Just like diabetics, those with food allergies have certain foods they must avoid or they will face a medical emergency.

What can we, the family dealing with food allergies, do to make this easier? Do you want us to host an event over the holidays? If others host, can we collaborate on the menu? If not, why not? One of the most difficult things to get across is that you don't want to be in control of the food just for the sake of being in control. You might have to repeat this point, often. This is NOT about control. It's about health and safety. You aren't asking for things just to be difficult, you're asking because you have to ask.

Ask your family member (s): Do you think a child with severe food allergies is too fragile to even enter your home because your kids eat peanut butter or tree nut products like granola bars? What can we do to make this work? Can I help wipe down the toys? Right before we come over, can your kids wash their hands? Just having this discussion is a huge help because some people are so freaked out at the thought of a child having a reaction in their home, that they don't even want them in the house. If this attitude persists, so be it, but at least talk about how to minimize exposure or reactions.

And remember, you can always host people if they just don't feel comfortable. Never try to force or "guilt" someone into an invite. A food allergy education can help, but if someone is saying "no"even after they have the facts and you feel like they understand the issues, then you have to go with that. It's about health and safety.

None of these issues are easy, but talk to your family. Don't sit in isolation and wish things were better if you think there is any chance that others will work with you to find safe solutions. Bring your own food if that's the safest option or host parties on your own. It all comes down to your individual situation, but at least be open to a discussion and ask others to be open. If you don't try, you won't know.

In the coming weeks, I will be co-hosting a live chat on this topic. More details on that in future posts and on FB and Twitter, so stay tuned!

What about you? Have you had these discussions? How did it go? Have you made headway or are you at a stalemate?

My e-book talks about educating others, finding safe foods, keeping your cool and living a happy life with severe allergies. It's on sale for the holidays and many readers have told me they've shared it with grandparents and other family members. Click the link to find out how to get it.

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