The New Rules for Food Allergies

If You Know a Child With a Food Allergy

NEW RULE: Teach your child to respect the way other kids eat. For many kids with allergies, social challenges start when lunch periods begin. When her son, Gavin, was in kindergarten, Mariel Reyes read kid-friendly books about food allergies to his classmates in Round Rock, Texas, to help them understand why he couldn't eat or touch any peanut butter. But now that Gavin's in second grade, "I can't really go in and read Allie the Allergic Elephant," Reyes says wryly. "It gets harder socially as kids get older. They like to joke around. And they get more curious, not always in a good way." Reyes realized this last year when she was planning Gavin's birthday party and he told her that he didn't want to invite two particular classmates, formerly good friends, because they had been telling him at recess that they wanted to put peanut butter on him to see what would happen.

Other kids get teased because their food looks different. Keeley McGuire recalls the day her peanut-allergic daughter, whose name she wants to keep private, came home from first grade in tears last year. "She said she hardly ate at school the last two days because a boy had been making fun of her lunches and snacks, leaning over and pretending to vomit in her food," says McGuire, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who writes a blog about allergy-friendly meals and treats. "I remained calm, spoke about learning to ignore others, and reminded her why we pack the yummy snacks we do. But it was heartbreaking."

All parents can help by reminding their nonallergic kids that a food allergy is a difference just like any other and should be respected. Lynda Mitchell remembers fondly how a particularly progressive group of teachers at her son Matt's elementary school in the 1990s told classmates that "everyone needs to be this little boy's friend and help protect him." By engaging their help, they gave kids a sense of importance that led to action: One day in first grade, a little boy ran up to a teacher and reported that Matt was having an allergic reaction.

NEW RULE: Put yourself in an allergy parent's shoes. Moms and dads of kids with food allergies often say it's not so much other children who don't get it, but grown-ups. In the past year, parents in Florida picketed their school to protest nut-ban and hand-washing policies that had been instituted to protect a severely allergic student, and a Michigan mom sued her child's school for banning peanuts and tree nuts (the case was dismissed). But such insensitivity is often more subtle. "You can tell when other parents are a little annoyed by a request," says Holly Peery, of Fulshear, Texas. Peery's sons are 8 and 6; both have food allergies, one to peanuts and the other to multiple foods including eggs, corn, dairy, wheat, and soy. "You worry about whether your child is going to be asked to a playdate because it's so difficult to feed him. Then there are other people whose eyes just glaze over when you tell them about what he can't eat, and you may have to say 'no' to that playdate. It can be socially isolating at times."

One thing on every allergy parent's wish list is a supportive circle of moms and dads who can distinguish a true health hazard from a hassle. "Being compassionate and simply asking questions about how our kids can be included makes a huge difference," says Eiger. If you're hosting a party or school snack, send a quick e-mail or text to let a parent of a child with allergies know what you're serving (you don't have to offer to bring an allergen-safe treat, though that would be extra kind). For a playdate at your house, ask the parent for directions for meals or snacktime and what should be done in the event of an emergency. It?s also wise to keep an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl or Zyrtec in your home, says Dr. Sampson. "If you suspect your child or a guest is having a mild reaction from a food, like a few hives or nasal congestion, you can start with a dose of an antihistamine and call the doctor. But if there's any sign of a respiratory problem, or more than one symptom going on at once, give epinephrine, if it's available, and call 911."

The food-allergy epidemic may have one silver lining: It encourages all of us, and our kids, to think more selflessly. Keeley McGuire will never forget a moment at her daughter's school when she was volunteering with a dad whose son was in her girl's first-grade class. "He told me he was thankful -- thankful! -- that our kids were in the same class the year before, and that my child's allergies taught his son empathy. I started to tear up. The world needs more people like that."

Eating Out Safely

--Look online for restaurants. Allergyeats.com includes families' reviews about their experiences. Some chains, like Qdoba and KFC, post their allergen-containing menu items. Chipotle's food has no eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, or tree nuts.

--Call ahead to get a sense of the menu and allergy policies. Specifically ask how confident the restaurant is that it takes steps to avoid any cross-contamination.

--Look your waitperson in the eye when asking about the menu. "If there's any question -- for instance, if the waiter says, 'Well, there shouldn't be egg in that' -- don't order the dish, and think about going somewhere else next time," says mom Diane Eiger. Speaking to the chef is usually the safest route to accurate information, she adds.

--Choose vacation sites that have experience dealing with allergic kids. Disney World has a special-diets hotline (407-824-5967); you can also read policies at disneyworld.com (search "special dietary requests").

--Before you book a flight, call the airline to see what snacks are served. And because other travelers may eat your child's off-limits food, bring extra epinephrine and wipes to clean off all surfaces in your row. "I politely ask the person next to Collin if he would mind not eating nuts because of a severe allergy," says mom Holly Peery. "It's awkward but important."

Recognize an Allergy Emergency

The big 8: Eight foods that children are most often allergic to

Meiko Takechi Arquillos

These are things children might do or say if they're experiencing anaphylaxis -- which should warrant an injection of epinephrine, if available, and a call to 911 -- according to experts at the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

Children age 2 and under might ...

  • Put their hands in their mouth
  • Pull or scratch their tongue
  • Make a hoarse or squeaky noise
  • Scratch their ears (or behind them)

Older kids may say ...

  • "My mouth feels funny."
  • "There's something stuck in my throat."
  • "My lips feel tight."
  • "My tongue is hot [or burning]."
  • "My mouth [or tongue] itches."
  • "It feels like there's hair on my tongue."
  • "It feels like there are bugs in my ears."

When to Worry: Food Allergies
When to Worry: Food Allergies

Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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