I don’t want to scare him.
When my son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy as an 8 month old, I was terrified. Suddenly, food was now a threat. I was thrown head first into the world of label reading, hand washing, EpiPen remembering, home cooking, and constantly worrying.
But I am his mom. And I would do anything for that sweet boy.
Over the last few years, we really have developed a new normal. If you’re a new food allergy mom, I want to encourage you that it really does start to get easier, you do find a new rhythm, safe foods, and a new relationship with food.
My kids love food and as they have gotten out of the baby phase (they are 4 and 2 now) we have gotten to talk more about food allergies.
I’ve had a lot of questions about how to talk to my son about his food allergies. I don’t want to overwhelm him, and I certainly don’t want to scare him.
What is age-appropriate to say? What part of managing food allergies can he handle right now at his age?
Maybe you have these questions too. Here is what has helped us so far.
Books, TV Shows, And Songs
When my son was around two/three, we started talking more about food allergies and we found books, tv shows, and songs to be very helpful. Our family’s personal favorite was “Daniel Has An Allergy” from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. There is a book version and also a tv episode. The link there is not an affiliate link, we just loved the book.
There are so many great children’s books, songs, and tv shows out there for you to choose from!
We compiled a list with names and authors to help.
Check it out here on our instagram.
These can all be a great way to help navigate conversations around food allergies with your kiddo.
I’ve also heard other food allergy moms share that they actually have a book like these read in the child’s class at school to encourage open conversation with classmates!
Knowing What Their Allergens Are
One of the first building blocks to discussing food allergies is helping your child identify their allergens
My son at around age two could communicate, “I’m allergic to peanuts and tree nuts.” The way we helped him with this was we would read one of the above books, and we would talk about how he is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, so we don’t eat those foods.
We would ask him, “What are you allergic to?” And he would practice answering!
A Note About Siblings
We have absolutely loved that our kids know each others allergens. At their young ages, they actually already advocate for each other because they understand what the other is allergy to.
I highly encourage you to include siblings in your conversations about food allergies!
Recognizing Their Allergens
One simple way that we helped our kids to recognize what their food allergens looked like was to go to the grocery store together. We do not keep our children’s allergens in the home, but it was important to us that our kids could recognize what the allergens look like so they can identify them.
We don’t do this every time, but occasionally when we are at the grocery store, I point out different things with peanuts or tree nuts in them. There are bags of nuts so my son could actually see their color and shape.
I also point out common candies that contain nuts so he can recognize them if another child offered it to him.
What we really emphasize though, is all the foods we CAN eat. The grocery store is perfect for this because there are so many food choices available and that really highlights to my kids how many foods they can eat.
In the midst of pointing out the allergens they cannot have, I find them looking at all the other foods they know they can eat and say, “We eat that! And that! And that!”
I love this focus for them. We really want to bring home the point that yes, there are foods we cannot eat, but there are so many things we CAN eat and we can always find a delicious alternative to whatever we cannot eat because of the food allergies.
“Actions speak louder than words.” There is a reason that saying exists.
Your kids can hear you talk about their food allergies and safety a million times, but seeing you model it as a behavior will be immensely more powerful.
For example, we have a family rule that if we forgot the EpiPen, we turn around and go get it. No exceptions. None.
There are a few reasons for this. One is the obvious safety issue. The epi can’t help us in an emergency if we left it at home. Epinephrine is a life-saving medication. Whatever you are late for, however inconvenient it is to turn around, it’s just not worth it.
The second reason for this rule is that someday, our kids will be responsible for remembering their EpiPens. We want them to make the decision to turn around and go get it if they forgot it, every time.
If they see us making exceptions like, “Oh it’s just a quick trip, we’ll be home soon,” it undermines the importance.
Another family food rule is we read the label, every time, even if we have had that food before. This is because labels can change, companies can change manufacturing practices and/or ingredients which means what is safe one time may not be safe the next.
So our kids see us read labels and they are starting to practice reading labels too!
Other examples are:
- We always wash hands before we eat.
- We don’t accept food that doesn’t have a label.
- People are not allowed to bring food into our home that we haven’t previously discussed.
- And we don’t apologize for advocating for our needs.
My husband and I try our best to model these food safety rules to our kids with no exceptions. We know our kids are watching and learning based on what we do so much more than what we say!
Age Appropriate Language
One of the things I really have wrestled with in trying to figure out how to talk to my kids about food allergies is the fact that their food allergies are severe.
This is a medical condition that can have life-threatening consequences. It is serious.
How in the world do you communicate that to a child? What’s appropriate? What is too much for them to take in?
Well, first the age and developmental maturity of your child are definitely a key variable.
For example, my kids are 4 and 2. The concept of “life-threatening” or “death” is not a concept they are ready to grasp. So we chose different language.
When explaining to my little kids, we say things like, “You are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts so we do not eat them. Eating them will make you very sick.”
As my son has gotten a bit older and is now 4, he has more of a concept that the allergies would make him sick enough to use his EpiPen and go to the hospital.
We have been walking a fine line of emphasizing the importance that we do not eat this food, no matter if someone offers it, gives it as a gift, etc., and simultaneously trying to not create anxiety in my kids.
My kids love food! To help reduce the stress around food, we’ve been really intentional about noticing our own stress. I realized that I was making “stressed out mom face” when we were trying new foods. So we turned music on, played games, acted silly, etc.
I don’t want my kids to fear food.
The other way we’ve helped with this is we’ve implemented some food safety rules for our family that our kids are learning. It is empowering to know some basics to keep our family safe.
For my husband and I, it helps us to sort through what we actually need to be concerned about and what might be unnecessary fear. Our kids pick up on that confidence and it builds confidence for them too.
You can check out our 5 Family Food Rules here on our instagram.
Having the “This is Life-Threatening” Conversation
I haven’t had this conversation with my kids yet. But someday, I know this will need to come up.
So much of this conversation will depend on your specific kid. Again, your child’s age and developmental maturity will play key roles in when and how to have this conversation.
There is no “right age,” but there are some key developmental milestones. One would be a child’s concept of death or harm. As I mentioned, my kids don’t understand the concept of death yet, but they do understand the concept of something hurting them or making them sick.
For example, they understand that the stove is hot so we don’t touch the stove. So we adjust our language accordingly to help them understand and say, “You are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, those foods make you sick so we don’t eat those foods.”
Katie’s Experience with This Conversation
On the other hand, Katie’s family has experienced several deaths (family members, friends, and family pets) within the last year. Her oldest child is very intuitive and could recognize that these important people were suddenly gone from their lives.
She inevitably began asking Katie and her husband about the concept of life and death. They used age appropriate language and comforted their daughter through her many questions and emotions.
Eventually, their daughter did somehow connect the dots to herself. She asked Katie and her husband if food allergies could cause death.
Katie very carefully explained to her daughter that it could, but reminded her that the entire family would continue to learn about food allergies together.
They would continue to all practice food safety rules, read labels, wash hands, and so on. They used language like “our family is a team” and assured their daughter that she would not be alone in this journey.
Her daughter listened thoughtfully, agreed that they were a team, and then did not bring it up again. She might be mature enough to fully grasp that her food allergies are life-threatening, or Katie’s daughter might have simply been ready to move on after feeling comforted and heard.
Either way, great care was taken in having that delicate conversation.
If your children are older and are asking you questions about the seriousness of their food allergens, here are some key points that I would emphasize in your conversation.
The first is honesty. Use facts when explaining anaphylaxis. Facts like, it is a medical condition that can cause life-threatening symptoms. These are the symptoms it causes. You could even show the Emergency Care Plan from FARE who is the trusted resource on food allergies. Anaphylaxis is treated with epinephrine, and so forth.
Clarity on facts, what causes an allergic reaction, what happens in the body, etc can actually help reduce anxiety even though this is a scary topic. When we aren’t clear on what the danger is, ambiguity can create unnecessary fear.
Second, be very clear that there are steps we take to stay safe. Always having our epinephrine with us, never eating food without a label, washing hands before we eat, etc., all significantly reduce the risk.
There is a balance of emphasizing that we do need to take our food safety steps seriously, but that we don’t need to walk around in fear of food.
Third, listen well. Let your child voice their feelings, fears, and concerns. Let them ask questions. Reassure them. Spend as much time addressing the emotional side of this as your child needs.
Lastly, build confidence. Remind them of how to stay safe. Reassure them that they can and are managing this. Most things in life have risk. Driving in a car has a risk of death. This isn’t to minimize the seriousness of food allergies, but to bring a grounding perspective that can be helpful.
Again, every child is different. This is intended to get you thinking about how you might handle this conversation and offer some ideas. Some may work brilliantly for your child. Others may not. I hope it’s been helpful to bounce some ideas and perspectives around on this very difficult topic.
Role Play Scenarios
Playing out different scenarios before they happen has been really helpful for us in talking about food allergies.
For example, if we are going to a birthday party, we talk with our kids about what is going to happen with food, cake, etc. ahead of time. We usually bring our own dessert!
We also role play what to do if someone offers them food. My son attends martial arts so we do a role play where I say, “If another kid offers you candy at practice, what do you do?”
We talk through what to do if someone is trying to convince them to eat something.
Going through some of these scenarios ahead of time has helped my kids to feel more confident, and it eliminates some of the need for them to try to figure out a response in the moment.
As far as tone, we keep the role plays light. My kids are usually laughing at me pretending to be another kid.
The purpose of role playing is not to stress out our kids, or worse, make them scared of different contexts. The emphasis has been to build confidence and talk through what to do.
We practice fire drills with children for the same reason. It familiarizes them with an idea of how to respond in the event that action is needed. Role playing functions as a teaching tool.
Remind Them They Are Not Alone
One of the most difficult things about food allergies is feeling like you are the only one. I know I have even felt this as a food allergy mom. My kids are young enough where they don’t care much that we bring our own food or wash our hands a lot.
We have been extremely blessed to have a great friendship with two families who are also managing food allergies. It has helped my kids go, “She has food allergies like me!”
I know that doesn’t always happen. Here is what I would say. If you can at all, try to find another food allergy family.
Check your local Facebook group (that’s actually how Katie and I met!) Neighborhood groups, sports teams, school, mom meet-ups, parent groups, wherever you hang out! Statistically speaking, there is another family somewhere near you!
However, I do appreciate that sometimes it’s just not that simple. This is where the books, tv shows, and songs can come in handy. For my kids, believing that Daniel Tiger has a food allergy just like them was huge.
If Your Kids Are Older
For your older kids, you can let them know that in the US, 5.6 million kids have food allergies. They are literally in the company of MILLIONS. That’s approximately 2 kids per classroom. Statistics are from the CDC.
Colleges are transforming their cafeterias to include Top 8 Free dining because there are so many incoming freshman who are managing food allergies.
If your older kids would benefit from seeing someone just a bit older than them living with food allergies, Catherine Walker grew up with food allergies and actually wrote a cookbook as a teenager. She has a great instagram at @cook_it_up_catherine
FARE also highlights a story of a person living with food allergies every Sunday.
Your child is not alone. Your family is not alone. And we so want your child to know that.
Meet Your Child Where He or She Is
Like most things in parenting, knowing your child’s specific needs is so key in helping them navigate through things. Meet them where they are! My kids can name their food allergies, advocate for each other, and follow some basic food safety rules.
As they get older, becoming responsible for their own EpiPens, learning how to administer the epi, advocating at restaurants and in social settings, and the “this is serious” conversation will all be a part of how we talk to them about food allergies.
I hope you leave with some new ideas for your family!
As always, Katie and I are here, cheering you on!
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