“Well, I’ve always brought a dish in the past, and I will continue to bring whatever I want.”– A Very Stubborn Personality
Last year, around Christmas, we attended several holiday parties. One event threw a “grinch” into our carefully crafted food allergy safety plans.
It was quite a large gathering, with over 20 people present. I had politely inquired ahead of time if specific food allergens would be actively served at the party.
My kiddos are allergic to eggs, peanuts, and sesame. We avoid tree nuts due to the high risk of cross-contact with peanuts in most manufacturing facilities.
You can read more about what cross-contact is HERE, and its impact on food allergy families.
Our host had graciously offered to not have any of our allergens present and had even sent me a food list (primarily fresh fruits and veggies) to check over.
They even emailed all the guests before the party and asked them not to bring any food.
Talk about a compassionate human being! That type of support is such a blessing for food allergy families to experience.
Despite their effort, a few hours into the party, a guest arrived with a giant cake filled with different types of nuts.
Because it was homemade, there were no labels for me to read to see if any of the ingredients contained or had touched our allergens.
Someone grabbed the cake and started passing out slices before we even knew what was happening.
Honestly, I think my heart stopped for a few seconds.
For our food allergy family, it was suddenly a dangerous situation for us to be in. Our children are toddlers. More often than not, their little hands touch everything and then go inside their mouths.
Based on prior experiences, we knew our children could break out in painful hives just from contact. So we quickly scooped up our kids to keep them away from the cake and crumbs.
Furthermore, everyone who was actively eating the cake was also touching it. That meant food proteins were transferred to household objects via people’s hands.
I would have understood if the person had not seen the email asking for no outside food.
However, when questioned, that person confidently confirmed they had received the email but refused to comply.
They stated, “Well, I’ve always brought a dish in the past, and I will continue to bring whatever I want.”
That, my friends, is a perfect example of boundary-breaking.
That person had received clear communication asking for no outside food to be brought into a specific environment.
Then, being of sound mind, that person decided not to adhere to that boundary in someone else’s home. And they did so with the knowledge that their choice could cause physical harm.
That person’s choice communicated a distinctive, “To heck with this boundary. I’m doing whatever I want to do for the sake of tradition or my own intrinsic desires.”
That holiday party turned out to be a disappointing experience for my family.
Not only was the host’s personal boundary disrespected and disregarded in their own home, but our family no longer felt comfortable at the party.
Boundaries – What are They Exactly?
If you are anything like me, boundaries might be a relatively new subject for you in the past few years. Or maybe you are hearing about them for the first time today.
Whatever the case, welcome to the club! *Insert fist bump here!*
You want to immerse yourself in this topic, especially if you’re going to mentally, physically, and emotionally protect your family unit.
A Quick Definition
“…boundaries represent physical and emotional limits that you don’t want other people to cross. They help define your sense of self by separating your needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings from those of others’. Boundaries are the dividing lines between you and everyone else and they help make you an individual from the group.”– “Alex” Caroline Robby (Founder of The Center for Growth)
I love that description from The Center for Growth’s article on this specific topic. The author does a beautiful job of describing what boundaries look like in the context of our personal relationships.
You can read about the information more in-depth HERE.
So for my specific family unit, food and meals must be carefully orchestrated since my children’s medical needs are life-threatening.
That means our safety measures and boundaries will look quite different from what another family might think is necessary.
And that is entirely okay, as long as both parties are respectful.
We must do what we must to keep our children safe, happy, and healthy. And we should make no apology for having to do so.
Setting Boundaries on the Holidays
Now, chances are you have seen or read articles about placing healthy boundaries around your time with extended family and friends during the holidays.
It’s important to note that these suggestions exist WITHOUT adding in the extra complication of food allergies!
There are many “normal” reasons to set boundaries with other people during the holiday season.
Here are a few common examples for setting clear boundaries around holidays:
- toxic behavior patterns (physical, emotional, verbal)
- traveling long distances (physically & mentally draining)
- being yelled at, put-downs, or being sarcastically made fun of
- criticized for physical appearance/parenting/home/etc.
- heated disagreements about politics
- financial restraints or pressure
- disregard for your parenting decisions
- blatantly disregarding the rules of someone else’s home
Can you see how those reasons might prompt someone to set physical, emotional, or verbal boundaries with others?
Friendly Reminder: We are not therapists or counselors. We share our experiences and what we have learned along the way. If you think you are experiencing toxic or abusive behaviors from others, it is important to reach out to a certified mental healthcare provider. <3
I have personally experienced many of the above examples. Harsh words and actions made for some uncomfortable holiday events and joyless memories.
Inherently, the holidays are already prepackaged with a certain amount of stress. There are gifts to buy and wrap, meals to prepare, and family pressure around expectations and traditions.
Undeniably, family dynamics differ and can be complicated in their own right.
Add to that the food allergy safety needs, a heap of people, and a dash of anxiety, and you might feel like you’ve got a recipe for disaster on your hands.
That is why boundary setting is key.
Setting boundaries might feel difficult, or you might even be told by certain people (typically those on the receiving end) that it is disrespectful or unkind.
I’ve been downright TERRIFIED to set boundaries simply because I feared the silent treatment, guilt trips, triangulation, or experiencing someone’s intense anger.
However, the reality is that boundaries allow you to interact with others safely and peacefully.
Clear expectations protect you and your family.
In fact, having boundaries is arguably one of the best ways that you can authentically love yourself. It also means that you love others when you hold them accountable to those boundaries.
You are worth it. Other people are worth it. Even if those people act like total turds half of the time, setting boundaries is a fundamental human right for everyone.
4 Steps for Setting Food Allergy Boundaries During the Holidays
1. Evaluate Past Events
The first step in proactively setting boundaries is re-examining past holiday situations in which you felt uncomfortable, unsafe, or frustrated.
If you felt that way, chances are you did not like how you were treated or you did not like the environment in which you found yourself.
It might be beneficial to you to write down the details of those past events. Where were you? Who was present? What happened? What was said or done?
Once you write those details down, try to identify what upset you and how you would prefer to address it at future gatherings.
The first year we were navigating food allergies, I allowed another family member to take charge of the Christmas dessert. Though I wanted to bring our food, they continually reassured me they had a medical understanding of food allergies and knew what they were doing.
Eventually, I relented and trusted them to bring a dessert safe from peanuts (we didn’t have the sesame diagnosis yet). The day arrived, and I read the label on the store-purchased cheesecake.
There was an allergen warning label on the bottom. “Made on shared lines with peanuts, tree nuts, and soy.”
So even though that person thought they knew what to do, they did not.
Next, we were told we were overreacting because it was probably fine. If we were concerned, we just didn’t need to eat it.
I was heartbroken that my daughter would not get a dessert. I was furious with myself for blindly trusting someone without having a backup plan.
After that, we clearly identified that we did not feel comfortable letting other people (with a few exceptions) buy or prepare food for our child.
We set that boundary with others no matter how hard they push back on us. So when we attend events, we always bring backup meals, even during the holidays.
2. Determine Your Comfort Level
Unquestionably, numerous factors go into determining your comfort level concerning holiday traditions and events.
Are your children very young? Will there be other young children at the holiday party?
The younger the child, the less control you have over them touching things. Also, mealtime tends to be a mini version of an epic food fight for some kids.
Not to mention that babies and toddlers constantly put their hands and objects in their mouths as they move around.
So it would be essential to know if your child’s allergens are being actively served in any way.
For example, if you have to avoid dairy, you must know if the mashed potatoes contain butter or cream.
Then you determine your family’s comfort level. Are you comfortable being at the party with allergens? Or is that too big of a risk?
Every food allergy family will handle these situations differently. And that is perfectly okay!
NOTE: Depending on your child’s medical profile, your allergist can help you determine whether or not cross-contact is a major concern for your family. They can also advise you on whether or not your family needs to avoid shared lines.
Trust Your Gut
Mother’s intuition is not to be minimized. Trust your gut if you are unsure about the foods being served. The warning bells that go off in our heads are there for a reason.
And safety boundaries are not always about the food! Sometimes safety boundaries need to be placed around our mental and emotional health.
You most likely know the people that you will see at holiday events.
Frankly, you already have a pretty good idea of whether they are open to learning. Healthy individuals can hear requests and boundaries. They typically respond to you positively and want to figure out how to work with you.
However, suppose you are dealing with individuals who typically display an attitude that is dismissive, uncaring, or sometimes even hostile. In that case, you can continue to assume they will most likely act similarly when you politely bring up food allergy requests.
We never want to put people in a specific category and claim they cannot grow as human beings. But you can predict their behavior based on previous events and their choices.
Offer Them A Pearl
Adam Young is a licensed therapist, and I love to listen to his podcasts about engaging with those who have harmed us. It is a Christian podcast, but very applicable to all life situations.
If you are interested, check out his podcast “The Place We Find Ourselves” and episodes 93 through 98.
Adam talks about offering people a pearl, which in this case, would be telling family and friends what you need in a given situation.
If you are invited to a holiday event with your family, take a small but vulnerable step forward. Share with them a few complexities of food allergies and the importance of keeping your children safe.
That is a promising start if they take that tiny pearl and listen kindly. Your family can then decide the next steps that can be taken.
On the flip side, if they take that pearl, laugh at you, judge you, or harshly criticize you, they do not respect you.
I know. It hurts, darling. Boy, do I know how painful that is to experience.
But we cannot control others. We can only control our own choices and behavior.
You can make the decision to choose to do the holiday alone with your immediate family unit.
For instance, we have a few people in our lives who refuse to abide by our boundaries or apologize when they bulldoze over them. Their pride prevents them from moving forward with us. Consequently, we really limit our time with them.
We do not need to sacrifice our own peace and happiness for the sake of those who deliberately and habitually choose to disrespect us.
Not even for extended family.
3. Clearly Communicate
Once your family has thought through past events and determined their comfort level, it is vital to clearly communicate the options you are comfortable with to your extended family and friends.
Here are a few holiday options other food allergy families practice:
- Attend the event, but bring their own food
- Politely ask the host if it is possible to adjust the ingredients so that the allergens are not being served directly (I have also done this as an extra safety measure, but still brought our own food)
- Requesting to help the host prepare and cook all the food to ensure it is safe
- Bringing 3-4 side dishes that are safe, so their child has a few safe options besides their own separate meal
- Offering to host the holiday party when possible
- Offering to host, but the family splits the cost of the food instead of bringing side dishes
- Encourage non-food-centered family events, like meeting at the beach, going to the park, or hiking
- If you are uncomfortable with the number of people in attendance, or the food, suggest an alternate date to celebrate with close family members
Once everyone is on board with an option, you can determine if additional boundaries need to be communicated.
Additional boundaries might sound like:
- “No, we are not comfortable with that.”
- “Please do not bring any outside food to our home.”
- “We ask that no one offers our child any food. As their parents, we will feed them.”
- “We ask everyone to take off their shoes at the door and wash their hands upon arrival.”
- “Please leave your pets at home.” (This one surprised me but seems to be a problem for some families.)
When confronted with harsh comments like:
- “You make the holidays so complicated.”
- “Here we go again about food allergies! What is it this time?”
- “Seriously? They haven’t grown out of it yet? Did you pray?”
- “They just need to eat more of the allergen.”
- “Geez. It’s just one bite.”
- “You just need to toughen up”.
- “Back in my day, we were tough. We didn’t have allergies.”
- “It would be fine if the family ate organic or no GMOs.”
- “Maybe you shouldn’t vaccinate.”
- “Your gut health must be bad.”
Those comments are inappropriate. In some contexts, if said repeatedly, they are abusive. Technically, they fall under mental and emotional bullying.
When you hear those things, model appropriate responses for your children.
Here are a few options:
- “We respectfully ask that you not make statements like that to our children or us again.”
- “We are open to discussing food allergies, but we are not open to judgments or condemnation. Your comments are unhelpful and unkind. Please keep them to yourself.”
- “Ouch. That comment really hurt.”
- “What did you mean when you said _____?”
4. Hold The Line
Without a doubt, we want people to hear and respect our concerns about food allergy safety. Likewise, we must hold ourselves to a standard of listening and accepting someone’s answer to our requests, even if it is a “no”.
Though it may sting, it is acceptable for someone to tell us they do not want to follow food allergy boundaries within their own home. We can’t force people to do something to accommodate us.
If they communicate that they are unwilling to work with you, then it is up to your family to decide how to handle it.
For my family, we respect that person’s answer but then politely turn down their invitation since our first priority is to keep our young children safe.
That does not mean our answer will always be to refuse a party invite. Our boundaries will change and adjust with our family as our children get older and our needs change.
Others have the right to refuse a request, and so do we.
When Boundaries Are Violated
However, if people go out of their way to accommodate you, OR you are hosting the holiday dinner, that is awesome! Hopefully, everyone invited will be respectful of the safety boundaries.
However, it is essential to keep in mind that there is always a chance that your boundaries will be broken.
So, what should you do if that occurs?
First, Restate the Boundary
If you ask a guest to bring no food to your meal, but they arrive with unlabeled foods they made, then you can kindly restate the boundary they agreed to.
It could sound like this:
“Hey! It’s good to see you! I see you brought food. That might be unsafe for us to eat. We chatted over the phone and discussed no outside foods being brought into our house. Could you help us by returning it to your car? Thank you.”
Another situation we’ve run into is having a person try to feed our children food even though we’ve asked them not to do so. That is another safety boundary that is a non-negotiable for our family.
Confronting that person’s boundary-breaking could sound like this:
“We have already asked everyone to not feed our children or offer them food. We will provide safe food for them to eat. Please stop offering them food.”
These types of scripted responses could be adjusted depending on what issue you have concerning a specific boundary.
If All Else Fails, Implement a Consequence
Let’s pretend the example situations above were not received well by the other person. Maybe they started arguing, guilt-tripping, using sarcasm, yelling, cursing, or accusing you of things.
Firstly, that is highly inappropriate behavior in any context. Secondly, you can ask them to leave if they are in your home.
You can remove yourself and your family if you are somewhere else. That might need to be the consequence if they are unregulated in their words and behavior.
Now, please hear me clearly. I am not using the word “consequence” to threaten or belittle someone. It’s simply the natural outcome of someone disrespecting your essential safety boundary.
Additional boundary consequences might sound like:
- “We clearly said ‘no’ to that. We must ask you to leave if you cannot respect our ‘no.”
- “I value myself and my family. We need to take a break from communicating if you yell at us (or belittle/judge/make fun).”
- “Kindness is something we want to model to our kids. This does not feel kind right now. We will be in the other room if you want to try again later.”
These are tough consequences to implement, but vital to follow through on if you want people to take your boundaries seriously.
More On Boundaries
For me, this is a complex subject. It has required much counseling, research, processing, and practice implementation.
I usually have a million questions or “what if” situation scenarios that I question due to my prior experiences.
Thankfully, there are many more boundary-setting resources available online. A few of my favorites include:
- MedCircle.com – They give a clear overview of healthy boundaries and how to tell if your boundaries are being violated. Check it out HERE.
- PositivePsychology.com – They have an article entitled, “How To Set Healthy Boundaries & Build Positive Relationships”
- PsychologyToday.com – There is an excellent outline for appropriate holiday boundaries HERE.
A Comforting Truth: You’re Not Alone
“We read to know we are not alone.”– C. S. Lewis
You read this blog post for a reason. Some part of you was either anxious for information, desired to learn, or simply needed affirmation that your boundaries are not unreasonable.
Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is a common struggle for millions of families.
You are not alone, nor are you weak, to need those boundaries. Don’t let anyone make you feel otherwise.
Lauren and I really do understand and we hope this post proved helpful and that you felt empowered to meet your needs this holiday season. <3
Thinking of you always, sweet momma.