How to Educate Your Child About a Severe Food Allergy
Learning that your child has an extreme allergy can be frightening and life changing. If the allergy can cause anaphylaxis, it’s especially important to educate yourself and your child about the best ways to prevent an emergency. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that may occur after a person is exposed to an allergen. During anaphylaxis, tissues in the body release histamine and other substances, causing airways to tighten; swelling of the face, eyes, or tongue; and hives, itchiness or other symptoms.
It’s vital that your child has a clear understanding of the situation, so make sure you explain it in a way that he or she can comprehend. The conversation may be difficult. You must effectively emphasize how serious the allergy is without unnecessarily scaring your child. Keep the following strategies in mind as you walk that tightrope towards keeping him or her safe.
What to Say
Introduce the most important concepts of the allergy as simply as you can.
Explain to your child that some foods are “safe” and some are “unsafe” to eat. Go over the names of unsafe foods and show pictures of what they look like. If your child can read, point out the unsafe ingredients in a food item’s label so he or she knows what the word looks like.
Make sure your child knows to only eat food given to him by parents and trusted adults, like grandparents or babysitters. Emphasize that not all adults know about the allergy so it’s important to ask questions before eating something provided by others.
Teach your child to find an adult immediately if he or she feels sick or needs help.
Go over your emergency action plan and discuss symptoms and steps to take in case of a reaction.
How to Act
Children watch their parents to understand how to react to stressful situations, so try to minimize any sign of anxiety or fear during your conversation.
Avoid using phrases that could unnecessarily scare your child, like “deathly allergic” or “life-threatening.”
Stay as calm as possible to show your child that although the situation is serious, you feel confident he or she will be safe. Your child will model that behavior when thinking and talking about the allergy.
Make it clear that you’re there to answer any questions. Sometimes children will fill in the details with their imaginations and come to incorrect conclusions that are scarier than the reality.
Try to not talk down to your child. If you treat him or her like a partner in handling the allergy, your child is more likely to feel empowered and capable.
Show and Tell
If you model good allergy management behaviors, your child will learn and imitate them.
Include your child in your actions so he or she feels confident about managing the allergy. Use “we” instead of “I” statements to give your child ownership of the allergy. Say things like, “we should read the ingredient list to make sure this food is safe for you to eat.”
Be obvious about reading food labels—you can even narrate as you read and point out the safe and unsafe ingredients.
Explain what you’re doing out loud. Before leaving the house, say things like, “we have our epinephrine kit, so we are ready to go to school!” This will reinforce that your child shouldn’t go anywhere without proper medicine.
The best way to learn is by teaching, so let your child participate when explaining the allergy to others. He or she will better understand the allergy and feel confident talking about it.
Teach your child to say, “no, thank you” when others offer food. Role-play to practice so everyone feels confident in real-life situations.
Once you’ve conveyed the details of the allergy and the steps necessary to avoid a reaction, make it clear that you’re proud of your child and have confidence that he or she can handle it. Help your kid feel empowered to make the right choices so both of you feel safe and prepared.