Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Food Allergies and Family Fights: Part 1

Many of you have contacted me recently or posted on this blog about how food allergies have created family strife. Some common reasons for this are that relatives don't believe that a child or other family member can be seriously harmed or have their life threatened by a seemingly innocent food. Other times, the emotional ties to tradition holiday or celebration foods that contain potentially harmful allergens causes family to butt heads. For me, one of my biggest challenges--and it's one many of you struggle with as well--is explaining cross contact issues. For example, we're often told "this doesn't have nuts in it, you can have it." Well, no, because we don't know the environment it was cooked in (or we do know and have deemed it unsafe due to allergenic foods also present there.)"

The list goes on. I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all solution to these disagreements involving food allergy and family, but since each family is different and each allergy is different, this is not always possible. I'm not a therapist, I'm just a regular parent who has had to face many of these same issues. Based on my experiences over the years, I can tell you what's worked for me. This topic is too important to be covered in one post--for one thing it would be too long. :) So here is Part 1 of my suggestions for dealing with food allergies and family.

Evaluate each situation individually. You probably have discovered that certain family members are more open to dealing with food allergies than others. You are going to have to take this into account when saying yes or no to foods and events. For example, an aunt may have removed all nut-containing foods from her home and be a meticulous label-reader. She may consult you before serving certain foods. Obviously, attending events hosted by this person are going to feel better to you, though you still have to check up on things. Another family member may insist on serving the peanut butter blossom cookies she's always served on Superbowl Sunday along with bowls of trail mix and peanuts in the shell, despite your efforts at trying to minimize these foods. You will have to deal differently with this person since they may not be hearing you. In these extreme cases you may have to skip the party. It really depends on how much the other person is open to the situation and this may vary depending on the person and/or event.

Be honest about your concerns.
In the case of food allergies and families, as in so many others, honesty is the best policy. If you feel that someone is not "getting it" or you are worried about a menu, speak up, politely, please. :) Let's face it, no one is going to be as concerned about food allergies as you are. They may not consider some things that you feel are obvious. Speaking up (directly to the person you have the issue with) in an honest and straightforward way, helps to prevent not only allergic reactions but hard feelings later on.

Accept that not everyone in your circle will adapt as you hope they would. This is a tough one, I know. You may have some terrific support from most family members, but one or two folks just won't accept, understand or accommodate food allergies. You can't control that, but you can control your exposure to them and any food they may offer. It's sometimes better to quietly feed a child a safe food from home and go on with the party rather than taking a big stand over and over. Some will accept food allergy needs in time; some never will. Best to be cautious and move on.

Don't feel apologetic about food allergies. I find that many parents are really shame-faced when asking for reasonable accommodations for their child. Some people feel guilty about having menus altered or about bringing a safe food for their child even if they've been told things are "safe." This is not your fault so stay upbeat and do what you have to do. Can you imagine feeling guilty over other medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma? Probably not, but food allergies invoke a guilt fest. I think one reason is that food allergies are a "hidden" condition for the most part and those who have them look perfectly healthy. You may feel like others think you are making a big deal over nothing, even when you know you're not. Stay firm about staying safe -- it's just something you have to do.


dannyscotland said...

You are really tactful in your suggestions. That is awesome. If anyone in my family acted so uncaringly about my daughter's peanut allergy, I'd tell them that if they want to see us, they'll have to change their ways, otherwise we won't be visiting. And I wouldn't even feel bad for a second.

But I am very, very lucky in that my whole family is really understanding, including my aunt, who was baking a cake for my daughter's birthday and contacted me to find out if there were specific mixes or icings to use or avoid. I'm also lucky lucky lucky that her allergy seems to be mild so far. For instance, she has no reaction to being around peanuts, she just can't eat them.

Jenny said...

I'm so glad to hear that your relatives are supportive. I also hear this from many people, but a lot of us are struggling.

~Amy~ said...

Thank you for your article! We've been dealing with PA for 1 1/2 yrs now and we are STILL having issues. 2 wks ago, my grandma got offended when I moved her candy jar filled with Mr. Goodbars and other Hershey's minis. She told me to leave it on the table bcs DS had never snuck candy before and he'd be fine ... ummm...he's 3 1/2. It wasn't worth the risk so we cut our visit short and haven't been back since.

Then, my sister said something to my mom the other day about DS not being able to eat M&Ms and my mom acted as if that was the 1st time she had heard that when I have gone over that time and time again. It gets sooo frustrating bcs it's like how many times do I have to repeat myself before they get it?! But, I've come to realize, that they might not ever get it and we're having to make some choices that aren't popular in order to keep our child safe.

Thank you for addressing the apology issue! Over the past 1 1/2 yrs, I've found myself apologizing for DS's PA more often than not esp. when asking for extra safety measures for his care (church, play groups, childcare, etc.). But I've been realizing that an apology makes me sound weak. And, I also wonder if my child will overhear the apology and think that I'm apologizing for him personally and something he couldn't help (his PA)--don't want him to feel shame or like he's a burden bcs of it. In a way, apologizing for his allergy is counteractive to teaching him how to be vocal and assertive about his allergy.

Thanks again for understanding and sharing!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your diplomatic stand. After much soul searching, we declined an invitation to a groom's dinner for a family friend because peanuts were served at every table and with the amount of party goers and our PA childs age, we felt it was too big of a risk. The bride went peanut free for her reception, but her soon to be MIL decided that she couldn't skip the nuts, so we skipped the party (not the wedding and reception). It was a very hard decision but the right one. Sure, some labled us as over protective but I would rather be proactive then reactive to a situation.

Minivan Mama said...

Great suggestions. I suffer from the guilt aspect of it all. Often feeling like a burden on friends and family. For the most part, all go over and above the call of duty to help keep us safe and included. I just hate always being the ONE who makes things difficult! Ya know what I mean?!

Goody said...

You are a much nicer person than I, and I really admire your ability to deal with horrible people.

I've lived with tree nut allergies my entire life (I'm 43) and I'm still amazed my family didn't manage to kill me. They used to serve me cakes that they, "picked the nuts out of." We didn't have eppi pens and liquid benadryl, so I have fond childhood memories of chewing bitter chloretrimeton tablets to stop the swelling and vomiting. Fun times.

My son is severely allergic to peanuts and almonds, and having been through a lifetime of people, 'not getting it", I just keep him away from said people. Sure, that's sad, but how much quality time can you get with people who are willing to be so careless with a child's wellbeing? I stopped worrying about offending people the first time I saw my child have an allergic reaction.

Thanks again for all the terrific information and links you provide here.

Heather said...

Thanks for posting this. Most of my family is great with my son's allergies. Sometimes they don't realize something is unsafe, but as soon as they point it out they are quick to remedy it. However, I do have some thoughtless family members. On Thanksgiving, my SIL brough an apple walnut pie to dinner and never said a word to anyone. Luckily, it was my husband who first sliced into the pie and not someone else. He immediately removed it from the table and took the knife into the kitchen. I don't want to even think about what may have happened if that same knife was used to cut my son's allergy free pie we baked for him. Then my SIL has the nerve to be annoyed when I asked that the pie not be eaten until we left. I am still fuming about this! I don't feel bad for one second about what I did. As far as I'm concerned, it was her fault for being thoughtless and bringing the pie in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great of right now my brother and his wife are not speaking to us and I received a nasty text message from her all because her daughter was asked not to eat a peanut filled candy bar in front of and around our son at a family gathering over the holidays. I don't get it. And they seen him in the ER after his ana's very frustrating...

Madigan said...

Oh my gosh it's like you are talking about my family! I'm the meticulous aunt who reads every label. I'm aware of cross contamination and thoroughly cleaned my kitchen in between batches of cookies that had nuts in them when I was baking for Christmas. I even waited a day just in case anything was in the air. I wouldn't even eat anything with nuts in it while I was baking. I line my baking sheets with foil too. It's NOT HARD. It just takes thought!

Margot said...

This sounds exactly like what I am going through with certain members of my husband's side of the family regarding my son's peanut and nut allergies. I would not wish this on anybody but it is so good to know that I am not alone with this. Just this last Christmas somebody brought a pecan pie and it got put away right away but this person still proceded to eat it. My husband and I have pretty much decided that before the next big gathering that we are going to send a memo out a couple days before to remind people and if people do not follow through we will ask that the stuff be put away and if people still do follow through then we are just gonna leave. I think that might get their attention. But anyhow, i found your blog through my sister in law. She shared it with me and I plan to continue following it.

Anonymous said...

Your post made me feel that I wasn't alone. My sister has had her friends try to tell me I was overreacting. That I don't need to check labels and my sister's friend stated she does not check labels for her PA son.
My sister said that she is sick of hearing about my children's ailments and that she still does not shun them. (So I take it from that statement that she wants us out of her life.) So as a result our family has severed ties. I can't have my PA (anaphylaxis) child around a person who is so cruel about her medical condition. It's been extremely painful.