On the night our daughter Natalie was diagnosed with food allergies, I remember moving quickly past trying to figure out which chocolate chip brands were “safe” and fast-forwarding to her teen years. It was a full-blown panic.
“How is she ever going to go to overnight camp, kiss anyone safely, or study abroad?” I asked/cried to my husband.
He calmly replied, “She’s 3. I think we have time to figure it out.”
He was right (I don’t say that often), and it did take time. It took a lot of small learnings along the way to prepare her to manage that once very scary idea of overnight camp. Natalie, now 13 years old, has safely enjoyed many summers away.
My key role as a parent is to prepare my kids to be independent, and it’s clear that kids with food allergies have an extra set of lessons to master. I’ve huddled with other food allergy moms, allergists, and a psychologist to create a list of skills every food-allergic child needs to learn. Knowing that each kid moves at their own pace, these are simply suggested ages to introduce the concepts.
In my home, while we’ve yet to tackle kissing and studying abroad, I’m glad to have this list to ramp up gradually and take it day by day, especially when my mind wants so badly to race ahead.
1. Understand that they have a food allergy and certain foods can make them sick.
2. Know which foods they are allergic to and what they need to avoid. Teach your kids to identify their allergens in safe ways. Show them online images of their allergens or practice by using toy foods.
3. Communicate to others that they have a food allergy. Learn to say, “I am allergic to strawberries” or simply “No eggs.”
4. Know who to go to in case of a reaction, inside and outside of your home.
5. Know the symptoms of a reaction and be able to communicate them.
6. Practice commonly used allergy-related phrases like, “Is this safe? I am allergic to shellfish.”
7. Say no to foods they can’t eat.
8. Ask if food is safe in new situations or on special occasions such as Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and birthday parties.
9. Say “thank you” to anyone who helps keep them safe, including teachers, restaurant servers, babysitters, family, and friends.
10. Start the habit of putting their auto-injector in their backpack.
11. Wear a medical ID bracelet.
12. Keep an allergen-free stash of safe snacks at school for unplanned food events.
13. Play restaurant at home to practice ordering for themselves.
14. Watch modeled grocery shopping and label reading. Even if your child can’t read, show them the label and explain to them why they can’t have a certain item, such as: “You can’t eat these crackers because they contain eggs.”
15. Be familiar with common foods that may hide their allergen, like muffins that may contain walnuts.
16. Read a food label and understand which warnings and disclaimers they need to look out for.
17. Order for themselves in a restaurant.
18. Inform teachers, classmates, nurses, and other students about their allergy.
19. Talk to their friends about the dangers of eating their allergen around them.
20. Be increasingly responsible for carrying their own auto-injectors and remembering to always have them.
21. Practice with an auto-injector trainer.
22. Practice using an expired auto-injector on an orange to help get a sense of how much pressure to use in real-life situations.
23. Begin to self-advocate by asking someone eating their allergen to not to eat it around them or move away if necessary.
24. Learn and understand in an age-appropriate way what “life-threatening allergy” means. As food-allergic kids get older, they need to understand their allergy beyond that it makes them “sick.” Consider that many well-intended parents are sharing with their kids that peanuts could kill your child and that is why they must be so careful in order to keep your child safe. As hard as it is, hearing the D-word directly from you, not their friends, allows you to control the messaging.
25. Advocate for themselves in social situations that do not include parent or adult supervision like sleepovers, dining out, and movies with friends.
26. Carry their auto-injectors and own the responsibility of remembering them. If needed, set reminders on phones or devices.
27. Ask their friends to have their back and watch out for them in social settings, including teaching their friends how to use an auto-injector.
28. Be able to use an auto-injector on themselves.
29. Know the steps of their emergency action plan, including what to do after an auto-injector is used.
30. Sit in on at least part of a 504 or planning meeting so they know what should happen on a daily basis and in an emergency situation to keep them protected. Incorporate their thoughts and ideas into 504 plans.
31. Understand the potential risks associated with kissing with allergies.
32. Consider planning or leading their own 504 meeting.
33. Call ahead for menu options and safe food choices for dances, extracurricular events, and parties.
34. Initiate conversations about dating and kissing with food allergies.
35. Be prepared to fly alone.
36. Research colleges and contact disability offices to ask about food allergy accommodations.