How to Talk to Kids About Their Food Allergies

A food allergy diagnosis can be scary for both parents and kids. Here are some lessons and words you can teach your child to help keep her safe.
Aaron Dyer

When Amber DeVore's son was two years old, he had an allergic reaction to walnuts. A week later, he had a second, more serious reaction to sunflower seeds and went into anaphylaxis. Knowing that books are a good way to teach children, she went looking for some that would help explain his newly discovered food allergies to him. But she couldn't find any she liked. So she wrote one herself.

"Food allergies impact play dates, parties, holidays, sports, and even time at Grandma's house. It is a life changing diagnosis," says DeVore, author of My Food Allergies, an illustrated book that tells the story of a little boy diagnosed with serious food allergies. "Educating children early is important because they'll need to use these skills every day of their lives."

DeVore, who is also a registered dietitian, says there are lessons that all kids with food allergies should learn as young as possible. "I taught my son when he was diagnosed to never eat a food that hadn't been checked for his allergies by a trusted adult, and I taught him who a trusted adult was," she says. "Children with food allergies need to feel safe wherever they go, so they need to understand who they can talk to if they are unsure if a particular food is safe to eat." As kids get older, they can learn to read nutrition labels, self-administer an epinephrine auto injector, and call 911 in case of emergency.

It's also important to encourage your child to talk to you about what happened during the day. "Through conversations with my son, I have discovered many things that could have been unsafe, and some were very upsetting," says DeVore. If that happens, calmly talk with your child with words like, "Oh, that should not have happened. I will be sure to talk with Mrs. Smith tomorrow."

If your child recently diagnosed with a food allergy and you're looking for the right words, here's how some moms I reached out to have handled it with their kids:

How a reaction feels:

"My son had an anaphylactic reaction when he was a toddler, so I used that experience to help him remember what symptoms he experienced so that he could recognize them again. I would talk to him about all of the symptoms he had experienced, along with letting him know that his throat might feel funny or like someone is squeezing his throat, or itchy bumps might pop up on his skin."

"I have told him that if he feels a burning in his mouth or throat after eating something, to stop eating the food and tell someone right away."

"We have discussed at length that when his lips feel itchy and his face starts to swell it means that inside his body his lungs are swelling too. He knows that means if he is coughing or sneezing repeatedly it is his body trying to get air because his lungs are closing. He knows that the epi pen helps his lungs open back up."

How to handle social situations that involve food:

"I taught him to be clear and firm about the fact that he cannot accept any food. If a person offers him food, his first response is 'No, thank you.' If the person persists (as is often the case, especially for younger kids), he then explains that he can't have the food because he has food allergies. When that explanation isn't enough, he then goes on to explain that he just doesn't eat anything unless I prepare it so that cross-contact is not an issue. When he was little he would tell people who were extra persistent to ask his mom."

"We don't participate in something if we're unsure about the food. I explained to my son that we don't know if they may have used the same spatula or cookie sheet that was used for nut items. We make sure that when he gets home from an event like that he is always allowed to have as many safe treats as he missed out on. He knows he will get these treats and has never been too upset by this arrangement."

There's no doubt it can be scary to see your child go off to school or camp without you and hope they don't encounter an unsafe food, but DeVore says it's important to not only be your child's advocate but also to train them to become their own advocate. "We want our kids to grow up to feel that they can live normal lives," she says. "Food is part of several hours of our day, each and every day. For this reason, children need to feel comfortable around food, not fear it."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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