Allergy Shmallergy

Simplifying life for families with food allergies.

Managing Food Allergy Anxiety April 20, 2017

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According to a study out of the Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, children with food allergies are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their non-allergic peers.  And, the more foods they are allergic to, the more likely they are to internalize those feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.

 

How does anxiety present itself in children?  What are the signs parents should look for?

Because children often lack the ability to identify the source of their stress and articulate their feelings clearly, anxiety tends to present in a number of different ways.  Some of these include:

  • stomach aches
  • headaches
  • clinging
  • avoidance: not wanting to go to events or school
  • changes in sleep and eating
  • tearfulness
  • daily persistent worries

 

Periods in a child’s development also make them more susceptible to anxious feelings; such as ages 7-10 when kids are old enough to understand serious health risks but are still too young to manage their fears efficiently.  Similarly, pre-adolescents (tweens ages 10-14) typically develop an awareness of germs, disasters and things that could possibly go wrong, making this age range primed for feelings of nervousness and worry.

 

What can parents do to help their children manage their anxiety?

  1. First and foremost, parents need to model calm. (More on that below…)
  2. When speaking about their food allergies, frame risk in a positive way.  For example, “reading ingredient labels, asking questions and carrying your epinephrine will help keep you safe;” “eating peanuts may make you feel sick;” “having regular cheese can make it hard for you to swallow and breathe…”.  DO NOT talk to kids about death, dying or their mortality.
  3. Give them words for their emotions so that they can express themselves and relieve some of that private, pent-up worry.
  4. Validate their feelings.  Anxiety about food allergies can spill over into more generalized anxiety.  Their fears and perspectives are real to them.
  5. Tell your child a story about a time you had anxiety.  And, if possible, maybe something you did to overcome it!
  6. Explain to your child that everyone experiences some level of anxiety.  It’s a normal part of being human.  But when it becomes overwhelming we need to talk about it to help let it go.
  7. Encourage your daughter or son to socialize with friends and family.  Being with others is a great distraction and reminds them of the support that surrounds them.
  8. Teach them skills to relieve stress, such as breathing techniques, getting out to exercise, or compartmentalizing the discussion of food allergy worries to 10 minutes a day and then moving on.  These are important techniques for life!
  9. Reassure your child that they are in good hands, both at home AND away, like at school, at grandma’s, etc.  Kids need to know they are secure and that those in charge know what they’re doing.
  10. Empower them!  Practice what to say to their friends, family, teachers, and restaurant staff about their food allergies.  Teach them what to do in case they suspect they’re having an allergic reaction.  Work together to read ingredient labels and manufacturing warnings.  Allow them to ask questions at the doctor’s office. The more capable they feel, the more in control they will be!

 

What about us?  

As food allergy parents, we – too – are familiar with the stress and anxiety related to the management and realities of food allergies.  It is as, OR MORE, important that we manage our own anxious feelings as parents so that we can be a model of calm and security for our kids.

 

Anxiety – in all forms – clouds good decision-making (it’s science!).  Keeping worries in check allows us to be more effective parents by approaching decisions and assessing situations with cautiousness and calm.

 

When adults feel out of control, they tend to overcompensate.  This primal need to protect our children kicks into overdrive, leaving parents spinning their wheels in a world they cannot sanitize or make safe enough.

 

Kids tend to absorb the perspective of their parents and they can become frightened if adults around them are very stressed or scared.  Therefore, it’s critical for parents to adopt a healthy attitude towards food, food allergies and the greater world to help their children manage their own food allergies.

 

What can we do to keep ourselves calm?

  1. Find support.  Connect with other food allergy parents or spend time with understanding friends.  Socializing reminds us that we’re not alone with our concerns.  Feel free to use Allergy Shmallergy’s Facebook page to post questions or connect with like-minded parents.
  2. Arm yourself with information.  Familiarize yourself with food labeling laws, causes and symptoms of a reaction, and your emergency action plan.  If you can, learn to cook!  In short, empower yourself!
  3. Adopt simple solutions for your food allergy hurdles.  Resist the pressure to be the perfect baker, for example, and focus on surrounding your child with LOVE.
  4. Trust in others who’ve shown understanding towards food allergies.  A lot of food allergy parents only feel their child is safe when he or she in in their total control.  It’s important to let go a little and let others help.  If you’re at a friend’s house, let the host find a safe snack  – you can still approve the ingredient list, but it will give you a window into their decision-making abilities.  Let your child’s teacher become his or her food allergy-ally while they’re at school.  Every child needs a village.  More importantly, every parent needs one too.
  5. Prepare and approach food-related situations with CAUTION without assuming CATASTROPHE.
  6. Get out and exercise.  Talk a nature walk.  Have a date night.  Be sure to find outlets and activities that bring you joy.

 

 

 

 

Food Allergy Education: Allergy Shmallergy’s 4th Grade Lesson Plan May 9, 2015

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I received so many requests from you asking for the lesson plan I followed for my recent talk with my son’s fourth grade class (see Thank You For Being a Friend – The Need for Food Allergy Education in Elementary School) that I kicked it into high gear and began writing it up right away!

In previous years, I had followed a simplified plan accompanied by a food allergy-related book (see the list of books I’ve used/reviewed here).  This year, however, I noticed a shift in maturity amongst the kids and decided to capitalize on it and upgrade my lesson plan.

I will tell you in advance, the response to this talk was amazing!  The kids were fully engaged, respectful of each others ideas and questions, and clearly connected with the topic.

A few tips to begin:  Everyone has a different level of comfortability when discussing personal health issues.  Although it is tempting to talk about personal experience or ask pointed questions to kids who you know have food allergies, I would resist this urge.  I try very hard to speak about food allergies from a neutral perspective and not single out my own son, for example.  That said, if the kids chime in for themselves (as they did when I spoke to their class) all the better.

Mentally allot a couple of minutes for kids to tell you everyone they know who is allergic to everything you can name.  It’s going to happen.  It engages the kids right away and lets them be heard.

This lesson plan should take about 30 minutes but with discussion and an optional snack you could easily fill 45 minutes.

Have fun in the classroom!

DOWLOAD LESSON PLAN BELOW:

Allergy Shmallergy – 4th Grade Food Allergy Lesson Plan

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Thank You For Being a Friend – The Need for Food Allergy Education in Elementary School April 29, 2015

So we had a food allergy incident a couple of months ago.

There was a whole walnut rolling around the hall in my son’s school.  This, I can assure you, is a real anomaly.  So much so, that the kids didn’t know what it was. Having rolled underfoot, one of my son’s classmates bent down to inspect it.  “Hey!” he yelled to my tree nut allergic son, “come over here.  Is this a walnut?”

Feeling a little nervous, my son backed away about to explain that he, of all people, is not qualified to be a nut inspector when his friend, a food allergic girl in his class, stepped in to remind everyone that my son has an allergy to tree nuts.

The kids began to file into the classroom and somehow the nut followed them.  My son’s deskmate grabbed the walnut and teased him with it, waving the walnut close to his face saying, “Ooooo….a walnut.”  My son began to speak up, as practiced, when the same girl started yelling, “Are you crazy?!  He’s ALLERGIC to nuts!  He could go to the hospital!”

My son wasn’t harmed.  But he WAS upset when I picked him up from the bus.

“Mom,” he said.  “I know I seem really tough… Like my feelings are as thick as a wall. But inside, they’re like this [holding his palms facing one another, nearly touching]… they can be as thin as paper.”

We talked it through thoroughly: we discussed what he was feeling, things he would have liked to say, how thankful he was for a good friend like that awesome girl.  And, he was sure his classmates acted out of misunderstanding or miseducation rather than malice. The head of the school spoke to his grade and I came into his classroom to teach the kids about food allergies.  Both boys apologized to my son, explaining they had no idea about the severity of possible reactions.  Their regret was evident as was their interest in food allergy education (which I will discuss in a separate post).

This incident was innocent.  The first boy was curious.  The second was teasing, but truly didn’t understand the possible consequences of his actions.  In fact, he thought my son would join in the joke.  They were friends.  They’re all still friends.

I went into their class the following week and spoke about food allergies in general.  The students were attentive and engaged.  They had intelligent questions.  They were amazed at and very sympathetic about how complicated their food allergic classmates’ lives could be.  Interestingly, I think this incident brought my son and his classmates closer together.

While this is an example of a lack of education with no physical harm, it would have been very easy to imagine a similar case with a different outcome.  As my husband rightly pointed out, “Kids WANT to do the right thing.  Kind WANT to be supportive.  Sometimes they don’t have enough facts to know how to do so.”  Statistically, there are two kids in every classroom with food allergies.  We need to teach our kids the facts about this condition, so they can act appropriately.  And we need to teach all of our kids not only how to support their friends with food allergies, but how to support and look after each other in general.

— If your school (like ours) doesn’t include food allergy education in their health curriculum, volunteer your time to do it yourself.  I’ll post my 4th grade lesson plan shortly. Feel free to contact me should you need more information. —

 

The Peanut-Free Table October 17, 2012

I’m so proud of our school and so grateful to the head of our Lower School who is conscious of and working towards improving the emotional well-being of our food allergic students.

 

I have mixed feelings about the Peanut-Free Table at elementary schools.  While I appreciate that it helps teachers and administrators keep food allergic kids safe during lunchtime, I am concerned that it may exacerbate social issues that those kids already face.

 

Kids with food allergies already know what it’s like to feel excluded.  They are excluded all the time.  From the food at most in-class parties, from dessert at restaurants, treats at birthday parties, team celebrations, holidays, from the concession stand at the movies… the list could go on and on.

 

In the meantime, I had approached the head of our elementary school last year to discuss an idea I had.  After reading, The Peanut-Free Cafe, it occurred to me that we too could create a fun, desirable environment for our food allergic kids to enjoy.  They shouldn’t feel excluded from their class/friends’ tables.  We needed to create a space where food allergic kids could feel enthusiastic to eat!

 

The head happily agreed this was an idea we could work on!  Our school recently rebuilt its cafeteria and included an area, right near the beautiful wall-to-wall windows, where our school’s new “Peanut-Free Cafe” would go.  It is a space that, by year’s end, will be filled with the kids’ own artwork;  where they can invite their friends to join them.  And, where my son is excited to sit!

 

Teaching Teachers About Ingredient Lists February 29, 2012

I know that there’s an awful lot of extra things teachers need to do to watch over their kids during the school day.  In addition to instruction, teachers pay attention to physical and emotional health and socialization.  And, I hate to add to that list, but I think teachers need to learn to read food labels.

 

As we all know, food allergies are on the rise.  So much so, that in my son’s first grade class of 18 children, at least 6 kids have mild to severe food allergies not including his teacher who also is allergic to gluten.

 

In an effort to become more food allergy friendly, my son’s school began requiring parents to bring in ingredient lists for all food brought in from outside.  Whether it’s homemade or store-bought, all treats to be shared with other children (as in class parties, birthday celebrations, etc) need to be accompanied with a list of ingredient.  A good start, but who’s there to police it?  Parents are generally not given the “heads-up” on the food being served at these parties.  Therefore, it becomes the teacher’s job to read labels and ensure the treat’s safety for each child.  Imagine the job that is for my son’s class.  And, we have a food allergy-savvy teacher!

 

And, it’s not all about class parties. Take the case of the bird feeders (See Peanut-Free Bird Feeders: Lesson Learned) that our Hebrew school assured us were completely nut-free.  The administration sure could’ve used some lessons in reading labels!  Without the unprompted forethought from my son’s teacher, we would have assuredly had some problems.

 

Something about this system needs to change.  We need to either keep the party offerings to whole, healthy foods (and communicate with food allergic parents) or we need to teach the teachers how to read ingredient labels.  Or both.  It’s not hard to know what to look for when reading ingredient lists (we all learned!  See Food Allergies and Food Labels: What You Need to Know).  Plus, it could prove to be a valuable line of defense against a potential reaction.

 

Empowering Elementary Schoolers November 20, 2011

I go into my son’s class every year to discuss food allergies.  By educating the kids who do not have food allergies themselves, we enlist their help and heighten their compassion for their friends.

 
 

This year, I began by asking the kids to raise their hands if they knew anyone with food allergies.  Nearly every child raised his/her hand.  Not only does my son’s class have at least five allergic kids, but their teacher also has a food allergy.  The kids regaled me with stories of relatives and friends who were allergic to everything from peanuts to pollen, from dogs to dyes, and from cats to clams.

 

We spoke briefly about food allergies and what they are.  Considering their age (mostly 6), I briefly touched on a few key points:

  • Everybody’s body is different.  If you have a food allergy, it just means that you can’t have a particular food or dishes with that food in it.  Even a little bit of that food.
  • Allergies can make you feel sick.  If you have an air allergy (like pollen) it can make your nose sneezy and your eyes itchy.  If you have a food allergy, it can make your skin itchy (hives), your lungs cough, and your belly sick.
  • To help them stay safe, many kids with food allergies keep special medicine called EpiPens with them, their parents or the school nurse.
 

We synopsized the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea and continued by reading The Princess and the Peanut Allergy (see review, Book Review: The Princess and the Peanut Allergy).  The kids loved it so much they asked that I read it twice.

 

Afterwards, we all considered how Paula, the allergic character, may have felt when she learned of her friend’s plan to have peanut treats throughout the party.  My son bravely spoke up, mentioning how disappointing it is when you can’t eat something that looks delicious while everyone else can.  Many others echoed this sentiment.

 

We discussed what you can do to show you understand your friends with food allergies.  All the kids, allergic or not, had fantastic suggestions.  They were so thoughtful and considerate!

 

The class’ interest and questions regarding food allergies really surprised me.  I hadn’t wanted to get too in-depth since they are, in fact, in 1st grade.  But look at the questions they had for me:

  • Why do some people have food allergies?  How do they know they have an allergy?
  • How do you get better if you have an allergic reaction?
  • Can you have more than one food allergy at a time?
  • Can you “lose” a food allergy (outgrow one)?  Can you switch from being allergic to one food to another ?
 

This was night-and-day different from last year, when one kindergartener announced his understanding of food allergies like a lightbulb went off in his head.  “So,” he began, “if you were allergic to sno-cones and you ate a sno-cone, you could barf up a RAINBOW!”

Not totally incorrect, I guess….

 

Book Review: The Princess and the Peanut Allergy November 14, 2011

The Princess and the Peanut Allergy

We just read, The Princess and the Peanut Allergy by Wendy McClure (see the book’s listing on Amazon).  The story centers around two best friends, Paula and Regina.  Regina has an upcoming birthday party planned to the last detail including a nut-laden cake and peanut butter candy. Paula is allergic to peanuts, which causes some problems for Regina.  The girls have an argument that is ultimately resolved when Regina realizes that having her nut-filled cake may compromise her friendship with Paula.  And, Regina surprises her friend by ordering her birthday cake nut-free.

 

This is an interesting book because it’s told from the perspective of a child who does NOT have food allergies.  The princess and pea analogy used to enlighten Regina works as a way of explaining that even the smallest bit of peanut could be extremely harmful to someone who is allergic to them.  Importantly, the book addresses some of the social issues that can arise from having a food allergy and helps articulate conflict resolution in an age-appropriate way.

 

I had been concerned my son might not relate to the content of this book given that a) he’s a boy and b) he has multiple food allergies, not just peanuts.  But, I watched as I read Paula’s part of the dialogue.  My son was nodding and pointing to himself, relating to her situation and dilemma.  In fact, once we finished, he said, “You know, sometimes it’s hard having a food allergy.  It’s can be so disappointing when you can’t eat something that looks yummy.  And it feels unfair when everyone else can have it.”  His emotional awareness made me proud, although it makes me sad he even has to deal with food allergies in the first place.

 

We plan on using this book to read to my son’s elementary school class this week.  I’ll report on the results of our talk later this week!

 

(Thank you in advance! A portion of the proceeds of affiliate links go toward AllergyStrong.org – an organization aimed at helping at risk families with food allergies.)