The first birthday party I attended with Arjun was when he was less than 2 years old. I was just not prepared for the heart-wrenching moment when he was the only one in the room who could not eat either the slice of pizza or the cake. Tears flowed down my cheeks unbidden and I ran out into the play area with my son lest the hosts mistook my tears as those of someone who could not share in their joy. That day, I made a bizzare vow to myself – ‘I would never partake of a birthday cake till my little one could eat it too.’ A tad dramatic?!? Yes, but I am willing to bet that most moms of food-allergic kids have done similar things. However, my son has way too many food allergies so, it was impossible for a foodie like me to stop eating everything 😀
That’s when I consciously started working on myself and the way I talked to my son about food allergies to ensure that he is an emotionally well-adjusted child despite his food allergies. Here is a link to an informative article I read about the emotional impact of food allergy on children – http://www.foodallergy.org/page/survey-reveals-emotional-impact-of-food-allergy-on-children.
He is just 6 years now and seems to accept the restrictions imposed by food allergies as a way of life rather than an impediment. I don’t know how he will turn out to be in the long-term but as of now he just wishes that he was allergic to peas because he dislikes them with a vengeance 😉 Sharing some of my thoughts on helping our children accept their food allergies gracefully (some pointers may be inapplicable for those with severe air-borne food allergies.):
1. Food is not ‘that’ important: So counter-intuitive coming from someone whose life is all about food. However, my motto is ‘enjoying what we can eat is more important than fretting or making a big deal about what we can’t eat’. I am a vegetarian by choice and I could not care less how much the person next to me is enjoying his succulent piece of steak. This is the spirit in which I have talked to my little one from the day he could understand. As a result – very rarely have I had to deal with a situation where my little one feels deprived because he can’t partake of the food on the table. He has understood that food is not such a big deal but being safe is.
2. Yoohoo Parents – ‘train your mind and heart’: Children are very resilient and accept and appreciate boundaries effortlessly. It is we adults who feel the extreme pain of seeing our child denied the greasy slice of unhealthy pizza, the insanely high sugar and bad fat content of a slice of birthday cake and more. At the risk of sounding like a shrink – consciously talk to yourself and pull yourself back from feeling sad. Our children will not feel bad if we don’t feel bad because they don’t know any better.
3. Focus on activity instead of food: When I am caught in a bad social situation, I try to refocus my son’s energies on a non-food activity.
4. Don’t hesitate to state your child’s needs: By nature – I feel guilty demanding anything of my host even if it is a close family member or friend. For years, I would expect them to understand on their own and have something that was AF (Allergy Friendly) for my son. Hullo – how are they supposed to know if I don’t tell them?!? As a result, often there would be nothing for my son to eat at social gatherings and I would come back feeling miserable. That is – until I gathered the courage to ask my host beforehand if there would be anything Arjun Friendly at the party. Since then I have seen most people make minor adjustments to the menu so that at least a couple of dishes are safe.
5. Don’t deny yourself all the treats: I have seen that denying ourselves causes damage at multiple levels:
- It gives undue importance to that food item and makes kids unnecessarily curious.
- Kids begin to wonder if something is wrong with their family and that’s why they dont eat the food other children talk about in school.
- This is uncalled for sacrifice on our part and serves no real purpose except making ourselves feel deprived and our kids feel guilty once they start understanding.
- Most importantly, our kids will be that much more empowered if they grow in a normal environment and still know to keep safe. How can they keep away from an allergenic food if they don’t even know how it looks?!?
6. Keep repeating to your child: Remind your child every day in a gentle conversational manner. Encourage them to cross-question even you. I cannot tell you the number of times my son has helped himself by insisting that I read the ingredient listing.
7. Don’t fuss too much: Keeping our kids safe is of paramount importance. However, paranoia does not help!!!
- I believe that it makes our kids get increasingly annoyed and embarassed. That may lead them to do things we don’t want them to – like experimenting with new foods when we are not there.
- It also annoys everyone around us – teachers, friends and family. No one wants our kids to suffer and they just need a reminder rather than an over-zealous parent. My mantra – ‘others are more likely to empathize and be helpful if we don’t annoy them.’
- Also, it is better to make our kids self-reliant rather than depend on society to keep them safe. That does not mean that we don’t support efforts to have better laws in place to keep our kids safe.
8. Make alternative foods fun: This is where I would immodestly admit that I have succeeded immensely 😀 I love cooking and one of mommy and son’s fav things to do is to cuddle up and watch Food TV and figure out ways of making featured dishes Arjun and Allergy Friendly! Whether it is a buttery Paula Deen dish or our loved Giada’s recipe 😉
9. Don’t isolate your child:
- Makes them a target for bullying.
- Makes kids feel that there is something seriously ‘wrong’ and ‘different’ about them.
- Impedes them from learning to keep themselves safe in all situations. Empower them with training and information and then trust your kids.
- People around us learn to accept food allergies more naturally if we are one of the general populace.
10. Be a part of social activities involving your child: I have been an active part of all food and non-food celebrations surrounding my little one in school, little league and more. It has helped me:
- Ensure that there are allergy friendly treats for my little one too even if it means that I have to bake a batch of cookies.
- Gives me the opportunity to socialize with teachers and other parents because we need their support to keep our kids safe.
11. Accept that some wont ‘get it’: Despite the obvious seriousness of food allergies some people just DON’T GET IT 😦 I have had doctor friends – pediatricians at that, complain that they cannot send a PBJ in the lunch box because the school prohibits it. We cannot do anything about them so instead of letting some random people get to you – just learn to ignore them!
12. Accept that some don’t want to take the risk: Even if they are close to you. Appreciate that and let it go. Don’t brood over it because our negative reaction reflects on how our kids view their food allergies.
13. Don’t lie to your kid: That’s me! I just don’t want to lie about anything when it comes to food allergies – like giving false hope that their peanut allergy will definitely go away. Yes, there might be a medical breakthrough but as of today it would be a lie.
14. Celebrate Life and Food in an Allergy Friendly way: I want my son to grow up believing that he can have the best and funnest parties even though the cheese sticks, pizzas, nutty desserts etc. are not there! We celebrate almost every kiddie occasion with lots of other children over – Halloween, Birthday, Easter and no-reason at all parties! And, yes his friends know that Arjun’s mom organizes the most interesting parties. In fact, they eagerly look forward to the Allergy Friendly treats – a break from the usual 🙂
Food allergies has unwittingly become a part of our lives but don’t brood about it. If we emanate postive energy, our kids will view their food allergies in a far more healthy manner…
Best wishes for a safe Holiday Season 🙂