Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Teaching Kids to Manage Their Peanut and Tree Nut Allergies

Teaching kids what allergens look is important so that they know what to avoid.
With school in full swing and food-centric holidays and events a constant reality, now is an excellent time to think about how well your child is able to advocate for himself with regard to food allergies. Obviously, very young children need lots of help, protection and direction. But as kids get older, you can begin incorporating some of the responsibility for managing allergies into their routine.

Each child’s own maturity will dictate much of your approach, but it’s never too early to start teaching kids how to protect themselves. It’s not often talked about and sometimes it’s uncomfortable to think about, but your child can be the first line of defense in any attempt at preventing a severe allergic reaction. It's important to have your child's school and caregivers on board, but don't forget the most important person: your child.

Teach kids to be their own best advocates.

Your approach will vary according to age and maturity. For younger kids you can start by showing them what the allergens look like and what they need to avoid. Does your child know what a peanut or a tree nut looks like? Make sure they know and understand, by showing them pictures of these items and discussing them, and be ready for some funny questions.

A friend of mine showed her 3-year-old nut-allergic son some pictures of peanuts and told him to avoid them if he saw them. Later that night, she was pulling a pan of baked potatoes out of the oven and he said “Why are you and Dad eating those big giant peanuts?” As much as we chuckled about his question, her son had a point — baked potatoes DO kind of look like peanuts, especially if you are a little kid trying to do the right thing. So be sure to review the foods that are safe and how to tell the difference.

My daughter was served a pizza while on vacation a few years ago and despite the fact that we spoke extensively with the restaurant before ordering it, when it arrived she told me it didn't look right. She said "Mom, I think there are pine nuts on the pizza." Sure enough--there they were. (Pine nuts are considered a tree nut and those with tree nut allergies should avoid them according to most allergists). At first the pine nuts looked like slivers of garlic, so she had a sharp eye! Her ability to know a pine nut's appearance prevented her from eating the pizza and we were able to avoid a potential reaction.

Kids are offered food constantly

It seems like no matter where you go, kids are being offered food — at the supermarket deli, bakery, dentist, your place of worship, even the pediatrician. Use these instances to teach your child to say “No” to any unknown foods, politely but firmly. When my daughter was younger, I liked to carry a few safe treats around in my bag for those times she had to refuse an unsafe food. It is nice reinforcement that, no, you might not be able to have that cookie, but here is a cookie you can have.

School, daycare and friends’ homes are other places where there will be a high probability that food will be offered. Allowing your kids to see that food allergy management is just a part of your daily life and normal experience will show kids that it’s OK to refuse foods if they aren’t sure about them. To help kids deal with having to say no to foods, it's always a good idea to carry safe snacks and/or to provide the play date treats. Another that helps: directing kids' interaction away from food and more towards playtime. In the end, teaching kids that fun with friends doesn't always have to focus on food can only be good for their general health. Silver lining, yes!

Adults need resources and encouragement, too.

It's not always easy to be the gatekeeper and instructor in the very important role of teaching a child to manage life-threatening peanut and/or tree nut allergies. Check out the following resources:

Beyond a Peanut educational flashcards -- great for all ages, caregivers, kids, parents, relatives and friends.

The New Nut-Free Mom: A Crash Course in Caring for Your Nut-Allergic Child -- my e-book is a guide for parents facing nut allergies and it's filled with support, practical advice and encouragement.

Supermarket finds-- one of my recent blog posts features nut-free foods found on the store shelves(always read the labels; things can change.)

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