Education is a powerful tool. It can be a matter of keeping your child safe or potentially having a severe reaction. Education will give you the peace of mind to allow your child to develop their independence. If you give your child the facts and information to care for themselves, it will help reduce the panic you feel when they are out of your sight. This will take time, but it is important that they learn to live within their limitations at an early age.
7 Tips for Teaching Your Child to Thrive
#1 Always be prepared
If your child has an Epi-pen, which is prescribed by your doctor, you must be sure to always have it with your child. Set the example whenever you leave your home and say something like “I have the Epi-Pen bag” or “Who has the Epi-Pen bag?”
Whenever we left our home, we would be sure to take the Epi-Pen bag and also think about how long we would be gone so we had enough drinks and food. This type of preparedness will carry through life. With dietary constraints, you can never be caught unprepared. I always told my daughter with anaphylactic food allergies that “You can do and be anything, but you must always be prepared.”
It is difficult to do…but your child must understand that it is not “if” a reaction will happen, but “when” a reaction occurs. They must be prepared and always have their Epi-Pen or other necessary medications nearby. Adults that are around your child must be aware of and educated in the use of the Epi-Pen or necessary medications. If your child is old enough, let them demonstrate the use of their preventative procedure(s).
#2 Instill Confidence
You must instill the confidence in your child/children to learn to spread their wings. There is no specific timeline for this. Each child is different, handles things differently, and accepts responsibility in different ways.
#3 Define Specific Ground Rules
There must be certain “ground rules.” Teach your child not to eat anything without a label! They should understand that they should not eat any foods that you or a trusted source did not provide. Even if the food looks safe, cross contact is a very real concern. (Learn more about cross contact) Teach them not to take food from others that is not wrapped and contains ingredients that someone can check.
Use actual names of allergens like milk and make sure to call soy milk and almond milk just that. Do not use the generic term “milk” to refer to all of the dairy alternatives.
When our daughter was little, while grocery shopping, I would put her “safe” food in the top of the grocery cart and “Daddy’s” food on the bottom of the cart. When we got home, I would give her green stickers to put on the groceries. Green stickers meant she could have the product. She was also learning what the packaging looked like, so she became more familiar with “safe” products. I would put red stickers on the food that was not safe. It is important to always remember to read the ingredients/nutrition facts every single time as they sometimes change without notice.
#4 Use Visuals
With our daughter, I also prepared a binder of pictures. The pages were focused on dairy products. I cut out as many pictures from magazines that showed all kinds of dairy products…a glass of milk, dish of pudding, cheese slices, butter and margarine, yogurts, dips, deep fried food like cheese curds or jalapeno poppers, a bowl of cereal with milk, a small carton of milk like what is served at school. Go ahead and make a second or third page. I did.
You can continue your book by adding additional pages for other allergens or dietary restrictions. It is a great tool to teach your child and others (friends, family, babysitters, teachers etc.) all the ways an allergen could be hidden in a product or just what it looks like in its natural form.
#5 Lead by Example
It is so important to lead by example and to do so calmly, factually, and confidently. As your child/children are growing, let them see you read and reread ingredients, see you talking with their teacher, the server and manager at a restaurant, the order taker and manager at McDonald’s, instructing the babysitter. It teaches them the importance of taking charge with their allergen/dietary restriction. You can also let your child hand them the list of Emergency numbers and the Emergency Plan with the Epi-Pen or medication to encourage their confidence at a young age.
#6 Give them a Voice
Help them learn to voice their needs and concerns. They must always feel comfortable talking to adults like parents, teachers, and coaches. Eventually, let your children talk for themselves. This enables them and gives them the confidence to speak up for themselves. You are empowering them to take control of their environment. They are also building a rapport with the adults and caregivers. Your child will become far more powerful and effective as an advocate for himself/herself than we could ever be. This should be a proud moment for us. Remember, the goal is to make them self-reliant.
#7 Trust Your Gut
One of the best words of advice that I can give is to “Trust your gut and teach your child to trust theirs.” If something does not look right, feel right, or smell right, do not take a chance. If you do not know the source of the food or have the ingredients to read to verify it is safe, do not let them eat it. At this point, I would always tell our daughter to “make a memory.” If she saw something that looked really good, she should make a memory of it and we would try to recreate it at home. She always loved the challenge and maybe that is why she became the baker and cook that she is today.
The End Goal
In time, over time, with time, the end goal is that everyone involved in the care of your child will be comforted knowing that your child has a strong understanding of their allergies/dietary restrictions and the ability to assess, communicate and eventually help control their environments.
With your guidance you will help them make good choices, wise choices, and possibly life-saving choices.