This is a subject that comes up time and time again at the Allergy Support Group I organise with The Anaphylaxis Campaign and it’s not a simple answer.
Every child, mother and family is different and there are so many ways to approach this but here are a few that proved really helpful and positive:
- Tell them they’re special – Explain to them that their body is actually quite special and that it’s doing something very strange, and something doctors can’t quite explain, but that it sees peanuts or any other allergen as an invader and it needs to fight it to get it out. This is what happens when they get ill or have a scab or an infection, the white blood cells work like soldiers and race to the area that needs help or protection. In the case of someone with an allergy it’s getting the wrong signal about food that is really quite harmless. So for them, their trigger, whether it’s eggs, dairy, peanuts etc. is really like poison.
- Get an epipen training pen – Show them how to use their Epipen. Explain how it works, that it’s a bit like an antidote to the poison if they eat something and have an allergic reaction. Teach them when they should use it, what the signals are etc. and make sure they are confident. You never know when they might have to do it themselves or how panicked you might be. Kids can be surprisingly resilient and calm in the face of danger.
- Teach them what’s safe – You will choose alternative brands and foods that are safe for your child. Teach them that Alpro, Rice Dream of LactoFree are the safe milks for instance and show them the packaging. Get them to help you when shopping to find the products they can eat. This way they will learn to question what other people give them, sometimes adults and other kids make a mistake and may think something is OK. By teaching them what’s safe they will recognise if something looks different to what they’re use to.
- Encourage them to question – All kids ask questions, but an allergy kid needs to question even more. They need to constantly be checking, asking and questioning whether food, situations and circumstances are really safe.
- This is serious, but not that scary – Allergies can be life threatening but this concept can be hard to grasp for kids and you don’t want to frighten them. What you do want them to realise is that nuts or dairy or whatever they are allergic to will make them very ill and that they will probably have to go the hospital. If they have had an anaphylactic reaction the chances are they will not want it to happen again and may well be very scared that it might, and this is serious stuff so that’s not such a bad thing. Not that they had an attack – but they know it’s a serious threat. Siblings can also be really supportive and if older, also help to look out for the allergic child and keep them safe.
- Spot the danger – you could even play a game for points, stars or treats that are not food related, to try to spot potential allergy dangers when you go out. When you’re with your child you are their eyes and can do this for them, but ultimately you want them to be able to take over this role and be responsible one day. You can’t protect them forever but you can help them to stay safe and learn how to be constant checking, questioner, asker, assessor etc. of EVERY situation.
Safety begins at home
Your home should be a completely safe place for your child. If you can ensure that your child’s trigger allergen is never in the house and the whole family eats free from peanuts of sesame this is obviously the safest option.
However, if you have other kids without an allergy you may want to take a more flexible approach. Have a ‘safe box’ with all the treats for your allergic child. Make sure your other kids are fully aware of the seriousness of living with someone with a life threatening allergy and teach them all about cross contamination and careful storage. If foods are prepared using eggs, wheat or dairy for instance, these should be stored safely too, in a sealed container and clearly marked, so the child with the allergy knows not to touch them.
Going out, the dreaded big wide world
When your child goes to friend’s houses, school and other places outside your home they need to be able to learn how to cope, recognise dangerous situations and work out how to cope. In the first instance, when they’re young, making sure they ask you before eating anything to check it’s safe is the first thing to drum into them.
When you’re there you can make sure it’s OK but you can’t watch them every second of every day. There could be traces of peanut butter on the play area for instance, or toddlers could pick up anything and put it into their mouths. Very frightening to try and keep your baby safe when they’re so little.
- Stick to places you do know are safe, which to start off with might not be that many places, but you will find some.
- Take wet wipes with you and clean down any eating areas before sitting down.
- Clean the arms of seats etc.
- Clean toys if you think they might have food on them.
- Find other allergy mums and organise days out with them.
- Speak to the school.
- If you’re struggling to find someone to talk to do ring up Allergy UK or The Anaphylaxis Campaign who also both have lots of useful hand outs and advice for those bringing up small kids with allergies.
- The Anaphylaxis Campaign also run lots of seminars and open days where you’ll also get to meet other parents of allergic kids so get involved.
- If you use social media there are also loads of allergy groups you can get involved with, ask questions, share problems etc.
Allergy Support group – meet other parents and talk about how you cope
Finally, if you live in the Buckinghamshire area there is an Allergy Support Group for both adults with allergies and parents with kids who have allergies. The next meeting is more relevant to parents and is all about this subject. It’s taking place on Wednesday 6th March at 7.30pm at The Swan, Grove Lane, Great Kimble, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP17 9TR. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more and book your place.
Get support and don’t get too stressed
A recent study showed that the mothers of allergic child were at a very high risk of suffering stress and depression because they race around making life as normal as possible for their allergic child taking all the stress and worry on their back and not having anyone to talk to or help them do this.
You are not alone, there are other mums and dads out there trying to cope just like you. Don’t let it get overwhelming. Find someone you can talk to, even if initially, it’s just online. Tell your doctor how hard you’re finding it. Don’t suffer in silence. One very active Facebook group which is American is No Nuts Moms. If you use Facebook it’s worth a look and search for other groups, but more importantly, find some real people who understand too.
Living Without have advice here: Your child and multiple food allergies
Also get Emma’s book, You me and Food Allergies, available on Amazon.