Talking to Children About Their Food Allergies
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 your child well in the future. Here are a few tips for how to talk to your child about a food allergy:
For young children, work on introducing a few concepts at a time, starting with the most important things they should know to keep them safe:
- First, explain that there are certain foods that can make them very sick. Use simple terms like “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 in books or magazines.
- Then, teach them to only eat foods that are given to them by their parents or other trusted adults (such as a nanny or grandparent who is knowledgeable about their food allergies and 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, which will involve giving them medicine and then going to the doctor.
Some parents may, understandably, feel anxious and/or fearful about allergic reactions because they know that some allergic reactions can be life-threatening. Children watch their parents to understand how to react to stressful situations and may feel nervous and/or fearful themselves if they observe these feelings in their parents.
Although it is important that your child understand that food allergies are serious, it is equally important that you try to remain calm when discussing their allergies so you do not unnecessarily scare him or her. When you have a positive tone about food allergies, they will also remain positive.
Model Food Allergy Management and Involve Your Child
It’s tempting to manage food allergies for your child in a “behind the scenes” fashion, but it’s important that children understand why you do certain things to keep them safe, such as reading labels and only eating safe foods. Modeling food allergy management behaviors, such as reading food labels and always carrying epinephrine auto-injectors, and involving children from an early age 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 aloud before leaving the house like “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/her to eat.
- Prompt your child to show others his/her medical identification as a way to get him/her used to telling others about food allergies.
There are many tools that can help you teach your child about food allergies. Here are a few helpful tools to start with:
- Twigtale – FARE has partnered with Twigtale – a custom online book publisher – to create a new, customizable book to help young children better understand their food allergies. The easy-to-use online template lets you create a book with photos and details about your child that you can use to help them understand their food allergy and important rules to keep them safe.
- Books – There are many books currently available to help explain food allergies to children, including a few that donate a portion of sales to FARE to support food allergy research, education, advocacy and awareness efforts. View a list of suggested titles on our blog.
Kids who have food allergies may feel that they are different because of their food allergies, but it is important to 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. One way of doing this is by getting your child involved with community activities and events, such as the FARE Walk for Food Allergy. Another is to join an online or in-person support group, which 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.