How Parents Can Help Their Kids Prepare for Back-to-School Season
A guest post by Teen Advisory Group member Talia Gold.
As I enter my final year of high school, I continue to be severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, all legumes, mustard and soy. I have had about seven anaphylactic reactions throughout my youth, my first at the age of 13. Since then I have learned my telltale symptoms and take every precaution under the sun to avoid my allergens and future reactions. However, growing up I always was embarrassed by my food allergies, especially with the start of every new school year. I hated that the first thing my classmates and teachers learned about me was my anaphylactic food allergies. I was ashamed of it; I wanted to bask in the brief amount of time that I was a “normal” girl with no food restrictions. I wanted to imagine what it must be like to bite into the cupcakes Joe’s mom brought in for the class for his eighth birthday. But that was never the case, simply because that was not and is not who I am. Throughout the years, my parents have helped me stay safe as I entered each new school year, and I have included my favorite (and sometimes fun) precautions below.
Kindergarten/Elementary School (K-5):
As a young girl, I loved sweets and treats as much as the next kid. So, when I was a six-year-old and saw my classmate Tyler bite into a delicious-looking buttered muffin, I asked if he would be so kind as to give me one. My tiny fingertips had just grazed the golden-brown top of the muffin when my teacher yanked my hand back. “NO, Talia! You are allergic, dear! Here, choose a safe snack your mom brought in for you!”
I did not know it at the time, but my mother had informed my teacher about my allergens and had even requested an allergen-free classroom. But it was 2006, and food allergies were not nearly as known as they are today, so an allergen-free classroom was not a possibility. Instead, my mother sent me in each day with my own cleaning wipes (my teacher wiped down my area for me as I was too young) and my own clean placemat. Since no other children had a placemat, I felt out of the ordinary. And while I disliked being asked every lunch and snack hour why I had a placemat, it kept me safe from allergens. My mother always packed me safe food that I enjoyed eating throughout elementary school and made sure I did not share food with any of my classmates. She would even provide me with a Safe Snack Box, full of special treats and snacks for birthday celebrations or in case I forgot lunch that day. While shy me did not enjoy the spotlight that came with my different lunch and snack routines, it was the most efficient way to keep me safe. My favorite ideas from entering a new school year during my elementary years are below:
- Provide your child with their own clean place mat. To help them grow accustomed to it, let them choose one with their favorite Disney princess, cartoon character. etc.
- Speak to your child’s teacher ahead of the first day of school and inform them about all your child’s allergies and restrictions. I strongly suggest you bring up the idea of an allergen-free classroom. (While it is difficult for some classrooms to go allergen-free, some may support the idea of a nut-free classroom.)
- Alert the families of your child’s classmates about his/her allergens and request they refrain from sending in lunches/snacks with those allergens.
- Provide your child with a Safe Snack Box, filled with their favorite treats and snacks for birthdays, class parties and more.
Middle School (6-8):
Ah, middle school. These three years come with enough worries and drama, so adding food allergies onto the list can be challenging. As your child enters sixth, seventh or eighth grade, they are privileged with more freedom, which is super exciting! But this freedom can also be scary for those with food allergies. When I was about to enter my first year of middle school, I was so nervous that I would get lost or enter the wrong classroom that I hadn’t even begun to think of my food allergies in a new environment. During my first week, I realized that I was allergic to most of the cafeteria food that my friends were happily eating around me. Despite only eating the safe food I helped my mother pack the night before, I recognized an increasing anxiety level regarding lunchtime. Together my parents and I took precautions to ensure I enjoyed middle school and my growing independence in an anxiety-free and safe way. Below are my top suggestions to keep your child safe in their middle school years:
- Discuss with your child the importance of having at least two epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times! Not just throughout the school day, but also at social events, during after-school activities – everywhere, always.
- Draw your child’s attention to the idea of being more alert to their surroundings: What are their classmates eating? Did someone eat their allergen at their desk the class period before them?
- Discuss with your child whether you both deem it necessary to send an email to all their teachers informing them of your child’s allergens to help keep them safe in the classroom.
- Remind your child that they should only eat food they know is safe during the school day to ensure their safety.
- Teach/refresh your child on how to use an epinephrine auto-injector and the best ways they can avoid a reaction.
High School (9-12):
Despite the growing independence, I find handling food allergies in a high school setting to be similar to managing them in a middle school environment. In October of my freshman year, despite receiving an email explaining the severity of my food allergies and urging that classrooms be kept food free, my biology teacher chose to show us an experiment with food. Soon after he began, I realized as he lit the wick of the candlestick, that it was not a real wick, but one made from cashews! I began to feel symptoms as I breathed in the aerosolized cashew. I have a full understanding of my reactions and reacted quickly. However, this ordeal instilled great anxiety in me regarding my food allergies during my time at school. My parents and I quickly reached out to the school to remind them of my severe allergies and created a routine in which I could enjoy high school and be safe in doing so. As I enter 12th grade, our strategies have helped me have some of my most memorable times, all while remaining in good health. My favorite strategies are listed below:
- Continue doing what worked in middle school. You can still emphasize the importance of having at least two epinephrine auto-injectors with them at all times, no exceptions! You can still encourage your child to be aware of food and food residues in their surroundings. You can still suggest that your child only eat food they are certain is safe during the school day.
- At the same time, allow your child to advocate for their own safety! Have them reach out themselves to all their teachers, or even the school board, to create a safe environment for food-allergic children.
Each new year, heading back to school with food allergies can be scary, but luckily there are many ways to ensure your child's safety, all while enjoying each school year and having fun!