A food allergy diagnosis can be overwhelming enough for an adult. This experience is even more daunting for a child. Young children may struggle to comprehend what is going on with their bodies and not have the words to fully describe how they feel physically or emotionally.
Through clear communication, you can help your child understand what it means to have a food allergy and how to stay safe. This is a skill that will serve him or her well in the future.
For young children, introduce a few concepts at a time. Start with the most important things they should know to be safe:
- First, explain that certain foods can make them very sick. Use simple terms such as “safe food” and “unsafe food.”
- Next, teach them the names of unsafe foods and what they commonly look like. Point out gallons of milk, cartons of eggs or bags of peanuts in the grocery store. Show them pictures of foods that are unsafe foods online, in books or in magazines.
- Then, teach them to only eat foods given to them by their parents or other trusted adults. These other people can be a babysitter or grandparent—anyone who knows about their food allergies and is trusted to care for them.
- Finally, they should know to find an adult if they feel sick or need help. You can also explain your emergency plan in case they have an allergic reaction. Tell them this means giving them medicine and then going to the doctor.
Some parents may, understandably, feel anxious or fearful about allergic reactions because they know that allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Remember, children watch their parents to understand how to react to stressful situations. So your children may feel nervous or fearful themselves if they observe these feelings in you.
It is, of course, important that your child realizes food allergies are serious. But it is equally important that you try to remain calm when discussing their allergies. You do not want to unnecessarily scare him or her.
When you have a positive tone about food allergies, children will follow your lead.
It’s tempting to manage food allergies for your child in a “behind the scenes” fashion. But it’s important that children appreciate why you do certain things to keep them safe.
Involve your child from an early age. Openly model food allergy management behaviors, such as reading food labels and always carrying epinephrine auto-injectors. This will help them learn from your behavior and teach them skills they will use as they grow older. For example:
- Use “we” rather than “I” statements: “We should read the ingredients to be sure this food won’t make you sick.”
- Explain food allergy management out loud. A simple statement before leaving the house such as “We have our medicine kit with us, so now we’re ready to leave!” can help reinforce that you do not go anywhere without their medication.
- Involve your children in grocery shopping and making meals that are safe for him or her to eat.
- Prompt your child to show others his or her medical identification. This is a good way to get him or her used to telling others about food allergies.
Kids who have food allergies may feel that they are different because of it. Emphasize that there are millions of children and adults who have food allergies just like them—in fact, 1 in 13 kids in the U.S. has a food allergy.
Help them identify and connect with peers and role models with food allergies. Join an online or in-person support group. A group like this can provide advice specific to your community, such as suggestions for local restaurants, products and events. Search FARE’s support group directory for a group in your area.
There are some helpful tools that can help you teach your child about food allergies. Here are a few start with.
Be a PAL
The Protect A Life™ From Food Allergies education program helps kids learn how to be a good friend to those with food allergies. You can download free materials in English or Spanish. Share them with your child’s teacher, scout troop leader or coach.
FARE partnered with Twigtale—a custom online book publisher—to create a customizable book that helps young children better understand their food allergies and important rules to keep them safe. The easy-to-use online template lets you create a book with photos and details about your child.
Binky Goes Nuts: Understanding Peanut Allergies
The popular animated PBS children’s series “Arthur” explores food allergies in this episode titled “Binky Goes Nuts.” Teachers and parents can use the DVD and educational activity unit to teach kids about food allergy and how to help make their schools a safer place. It can be tough to have a peanut allergy—but as Binky says, “the more you know, the easier it is to stay safe and get back to having fun.”