I get asked these questions a lot from strangers to friends. How are you teaching you 4 year old son about his allergies? When did you start teaching him? How can I tell my child about their allergies without scaring them? Then a long conversation happens because the answer isn't that simple. Some are happy to hear it, others regret asking the question. Educating your child on his or her challenges can give them control over it. It will empower them.
Starting the FA conversation with your toddler child.
Age has a lot to do with how you approach your child. My son was 14 months old when he had his 1st reaction. Not an easy age to talk to them. You can't just say "don't eat peanuts they can make you sick or kill you". You can't just go to a party and let them move about and snack on all the food that is at their disposal. You end up being that dreaded helicopter parent. Not fun for anyone, but it's what you do.
What we did at this young age was to reinforce asking mom or dad only for food. Don't take food from anyone but person A, B, or C... When in the supper market (or any where we saw the offending foods), we would point out peanuts and nuts and say YUCKY, DANGER. If we saw a certain candy commercial we would say the same thing. He also had some books that had pictures of peanuts and nuts in them. Again we would say YUCKY, DANGER. We were using images to teach. This wasn't a plan, it's just what we did naturally.
At around age 2 is when we started using car rides to talk about it. On our way to a party or play date we would tell him the food rules. That even though we may not see the peanuts or nuts they could still be in the food. We bought him his medic alert bracelet and had him start to wear it. We started using the words safe and not safe quite a bit!
The Preschool Years (which we are still in)
When he turned 3 we started talking about getting sick and having to go to a hospital if he ate the wrong thing. That he would have to get a shot that mommy or daddy would have to give him. Now instead of telling him the food rules he had to tell us on the way to a party. When we met other kids with allergies we would excitedly say, "guess who else can't eat peanuts!"
If we went to someone house who made sure the food was safe for him we made sure (and still do), to have him tell the host thank you for making or having safe snacks.
At school we had a great system worked out. Before we would go into his classroom we would go (and still do), and check to see if the snack was safe together. He would see me check, and then I would tell him if it was OK on not. If I remembered I would have him tell the teacher if he could eat it or not. Sometimes I forgot and told her myself. If was unsafe we had snacks stashed with the teacher. We also always brought his treat for parties and such. Whether at school or at a party. This was and is his normal. It doesn't even phase him.
We also started talking about his EpiPen. We showed it (the trainer) to him and told him it had to go everywhere with him. We just left it at that at the time.
Just before he turned 4, we went to a close friends party. As usual she made the whole thing safe for him even though she doesn't have to (thank God for friends like this). They had a pinata with all safe candy for him. The kids broke the thing and candy was everywhere. He collected his stash and started to look thought. He came running to me with a box of Jr. Mints in hand, yelling "MOM these have peanuts! You said the candy was safe!" Turns out there was a no peanut symbol on the box. He saw the peanut but didn't know the red circle with the line through it meant no.
At that moment I knew what we spent the last 2 years teaching him sunk in. It was a sad and happy moment. Happy because he learned. Sad because now he understand his life can end with just one bite of the wrong thing.
About 6 moths after that party we headed back into the city for another food challenge. He had passed his first challenge to cashews, so we were pretty confidant he would pass this one for walnuts and pecans. This was not the case. Two minutes after his 1st bite of walnut he started to have a reaction (to read all about this food challenge click here to find the post and details of that bad day). While it was not the outcome we had hoped for, we again learned that what we were teaching him had sunk in! He did everything he had been told to do.
Up until that point he really didn't know what it felt like to eat something that could hurt him. We were always afraid he wouldn't recognize it. That no matter what we told him, he wouldn't truly understand an allergic reaction. Well he did, right from the start! He didn't need time to process what the feeling was. He knew what it was, and knew what to do.
Now at 4.5 we have switched over to the new Auvi-Q epinephrine injector. We love it because of the audible directions its gives while having to use it and it's size. Our son loves it as well. We showed it (the trainer), to him and he is not afraid of it any more. It's smaller and easy to use. He is now the one who trains everyone how to use it. Yes my 4.5 year old trains the adults how to use it! He is also in charge of handing it over to the adult who will be taking care of him if he is getting dropped off (with us standing right there of course). He does not carry it on him, but we give it to him at the door to give to an adult.
So back to the title of this post, Empowering Your Food Allergic Child. How we empower our son is to educate him. The more he understands the more control he has. He is learning how to ask questions about his food. How to say no thank you to food offers. He knows what will help him in an emergency. He needs to be confident and informed. He needs to be able to stand up for and advocate for himself if we're not there, because lets face it we can't be there 24/7 for his whole life.
He needs to know these things and guess what, he knows! At lease he is starting to really get a handle on it. So don't be afraid that you will scare your child too much. A little fear is good but understanding is better. You know your child better than anyone. You know what they can handle and not handle. Just don't underestimate the power your words have and how much they hear. That is you best weapon against food allergies.
Since we are still in preschool, I can't weight in on what to do with older children. Nicole Smith of Allergic Child is who I look to for that! I will have to wade through like so many parents that have gone before me. All I can say is I will always educate him, I will always advocate for him, I will do what I can to make him ready and able to handle what comes his way. I'm the mom, it's my job.