I hear stories all the time from food allergy parents that their family members aren’t taking their child’s food allergy seriously. And, this – of course – can have serious implications. I’m also saddened to hear when this difference in perspective leads to family disagreements – or worse, families cutting one another off completely.
Our parents (our children’s grandparents) didn’t grow up with this alarming rate of food allergy. In fact, many of them didn’t know a single person with a diagnosed food allergy. Times have changes and current parenting is more active and vigilant than it was 30 years ago. I’ve explained to many a grandparent that the rise in food allergies is not a trend of parent over-sensitivity or as a result of over-protectiveness, but -in fact- an actual, black and white medical diagnosis.
Grandparents and other family members may not understand the amount of work and preparation it takes to safely raise a child with a severe food allergy: the advanced preparation when eating out; repeated education of others; familiarity with labeling laws (such as the FDA’s FALCPA in the United States), alternative names for allergens and a general sense of where it might pop up and cause problems; the worry about our kids and the exclusion we fear they face. Let’s face it, none of us were prepared for the intense amount of work prior to our family’s first food allergy diagnosis.
If there’s one thing I know for sure though, it’s that a parent’s love for their child is fierce. It knows no bounds. As food allergic parents, that fierce love we have for our children and our instinct to protect them may come off a little strong. And, understandably so when we feel like their lives are in danger. But in the face of difficult decision-making, our anxiety over their well-being may not offer the patient, gentle voice that our family and friends need in order to truly hear our concerns.
It doesn’t help that food allergy parents feel disrespected when their own parents don’t fully abide by or outright disregard their guidance about how to feed (and therefore protect) their children. Food allergy parents can feel betrayed when others are unwilling to make changes to protect their children.
So, what can you do when you’re at odds with your family over your child’s food allergies?
First, have a kind but firm talk about the allergies and severity of the possible reactions. Do this when your child is not present. Expect a lot of questions, so come prepared with answers from your allergist or pediatrician. Bottom line: be informative and remain calm.
Reminder: don’t put your parents (…siblings, friends…) on the defensive. Remember the “I” statements you were taught in school. Now’s the time to employ them. In essence, phrase your emotions with “I feel…” rather than pointedly, “You” statements. “I’m worried that Charlie will have a dangerous allergic reaction because he’s a toddler who doesn’t know the difference between peanuts and raisins,” rather than “You’re not listening to me: put away the peanuts!”
Share your learning curve. Relate to them by reminding yourself (and them) how overwhelmed you first felt when you first received your child’s diagnosis. They probably feel this way too right now: they’re trying to take it all in and food allergies have likely seemed very far off and remote to them.
If necessary, spell out the seriousness. It can be hard to truly admit – most especially to yourself – the possibility of a severe food allergic reaction and its real consequences. I have a lump in my throat just writing about it. Watch the Discovery Channel’s 2013 documentary “Emerging Epidemic: Food Allergies in America” with your parents and siblings (again without the kids present). The first 10 minutes of this multifaceted documentary deal with an anaphylactic reaction and is a firsthand example of the dangers of food allergies.
Remember that old habits die hard. Most habits are not malicious, but they can be dangerous. My own father had a nightly habit of snacking on a bowl of nuts, which he continued to do unconsciously when we visited. When my son could crawl, I reminded him again that this wasn’t safe. I was frustrated having to restate this every visit, so to drive the point home, I told him, “These nuts are like arsenic for my child. Leaving them on the table is the equivalent of leaving a loaded gun for my toddler to figure out.” It clicked immediately. My dad apologized profusely and has since been phenomenally careful with my son’s allergies.
Invite them to a doctor’s appointment. Allow them to ask as many questions as they have. Maybe give your allergist or primary care physician a heads up so they know to allow a little extra time for questions and answers. Hearing the information from a medical professional often underscores what you’ve been saying all along. You know how your kids listen to their teachers but not you? Your parents might be the same way.
Remind them that as much of an inconvenience as it is for them to adapt to your allergy-friendly lifestyle, assure them that it is SIGNIFICANTLY more so for you and your family. Make it easier for them to navigate by suggesting some of the tips in The Host’s Guide to Allergies; The Host’s Guide: Part II; and the Host’s Guide: Part III.
Invite them to participate in your lives by organizing activities that DO NOT revolve around food or meals. I know that’s hard when we talk of family because food and socializing traditionally go hand-in-hand. But, there’s no need to sacrifice your relationship with even the most obstinate family member – just take away the point of contention: food. I know that tensions can flare in the process of trying to win over someone’s mindset, but – by doing other things and removing the obstacle – perhaps you will both come to an understanding about your different perspectives.
Families are important. They are our best cheerleaders. They remind us of who we are and where we come from. And, they teach our children all kinds of lessons we can’t impart alone. By trying to handle differing opinions over a difficult issue like a child’s food allergies in a calm and collected way, we are also modeling great conflict resolution to our kids who pick up on more than we’d like to believe.
Food allergy parents need support too. Parenting is hard. Parenting a child with life-threatening allergies to something as common as food makes it exponentially more challenging. Families should be there to help out and pat us on the back for encouragement, to give us a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) after a particularly rough day. And they should be available to envelope our kids in love, support and safety so they grow up to be confident, self-assured adults with loving families of their own.