You can’t: talking to young kids about their allergies

22 May

I have a close relative who can sometimes be as emotionally sensitive as a sledgehammer. And one extra thing that I believe you need when dealing with an allergic child, is a great deal of sensivity when talking about their allergies.

This relative (let’s call them Z), somehow manages to end up telling Adam every time they see him about which foods he “can’t” eat.

It’s amazing just how skilled Z is with finding situations where this topic could come up. For example, they will be reading a book together and where there’s a picture of a cow, Z will suddenly go from talking about cows and dairy products to a blunt statement like “but you can’t drink milk or eat cheese”. Or at the dinner table, I mention hummus in passing, whilst talking about something completely different, and Z takes the opportunity to turn to Adam and say “you can’t eat hummus because you’re allergic to it”.

What’s my problem with what Z says? Nothing. The content is factually correct. But I don’t think that its relevant nor useful to bring up Adams allergies in this way. And when it is relevant to talk about them eg. when he initiates the topic or we really are talking about food, then I think there are other ways of talking about it that take into account that he is a little human with feelings who has to deal with a pretty big issue.

Z responded to me saying this with “allergies can’t be taboo. He needs to know he has allergies”.

Adams almost 4. He’s known consciously and clearly that there are foods he cannot eat and ways his life is restricted compared to other kids for well over a year now. He knows many of his allergies off by heart and likes listing them.

But we’ve explained it to him in a way that focuses on what he “can” eat rather than what he “can’t” and on the safety of the food rather than on him and his body.

So if talking about dairy, I say “we don’t eat dairy. We drink rice, oat and hemp milks instead!” I’m lucky in that I don’t eat any diary whatsoever because I have a diary intolerance so I can at least say “we” in that sentence so Adam isn’t alone in not eating that food. I will always highlight what he can eat instead whenever we talk about what he’s allergic to.

If he picks up a chocolate bar in a shop I will say “that’s not safe for you honey, lets find something that is”, rather than just say “you can’t have that”. With over 20 food allergies it does mean that finding something that is “safe” can be extremely difficult in little shops but you’re almost guaranteed to find salted crisps for example or an apple juice that Adam can have (yes we ignore the “may contain” warnings as otherwise there’d be close to absolutely nothing that Adam could eat).

For the same reason I avoid taking Adam to any random shops or shops I don’t know. If I do need to take him shopping, we go places where I know he will have a choice of things he can pick off the shelf to eat and not be faced with aisle after aisle of unsafe foods. Health food shops are ideal for this and second best are large supermarkets.

So in no way are Adams allergies taboo, he is in fact quite proud of them and loves chatting about them. But I do think that as his parents its our job to make it as easy and comfortable as possible for him to talk about them and be as subtle as we can. If he doesn’t grow out of any of them then daily life for him as he gets older and has to fend for himself might be quite tricky.

I don’t want to make the whole thing harder for him by focusing on the”can’t”s rather than the “can”s.

How do you handle chatting about allergies with your child? Do you think its important to try as best you can to deal with it sensitively or do you believe in being blunt from the outset? Has how you talk about allergies with your child changed as they’ve gotten older? I’d love to hear your thoughts so do leave a comment!

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2 Responses to “You can’t: talking to young kids about their allergies”

  1. Vicki Millward May 22, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    Firstly, I love it when your latest blog hits my inbox. The more strife you encounter, the better/more normalised I feel (is that wrong?.. I know that’s wrong..)
    Ever since Katie (nearly 4 – nut, milk allergy) waived her magic wand chanting “I wish I could eat nuts, I wish I was normal (!)” my husband and I have said ‘we’, as a family, can’t eat nuts so she doesn’t feel isolated. Katie has a cracking sense of humour, so when packages say ‘may contain’ she makes a big song and dance of it saying “eurghth! that’s got nuts in.. why would they put nuts in it? eurghth yucky”
    I’d hate for Katie to be told she can’t eat something. As per the article, I prefer to focus on the can’s or ‘let’s eat this instead’. Relatives aren’t exposed to the allergy on a daily basis and, in my experience, seem to suffer amnesia on a regular basis. No nuts, no milk – it’s not hard. No she bloomin’ can’t have lactose free you muppet
    Personally, we don’t use the word ‘safe’ because she’s a naturally anxious child. We just go down the ‘eurghth, yucky nuts’ route. Thanks for sharing x

    • allergickids May 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

      Thanks Vicki for your comment! I absolutely don’t think its wrong if you’re getting some degree of comfort from our ‘strife’ ;-) Its why I started the blog in the first place-so that parents in the same situation might feel like others are going through the same thing. Sharing experiences is really important!

      It’s wonderful how differently to us you’re explaining things to your daughter-there’s lots of explaining to do sometimes isn’t there. And each child will benefit from a different explanation depending on what they’re emotionally sensitive to.

      We’re also saying ‘we’ about things that we’re not allergic to e.g. ‘we don’t have nuts in the house’ for the same reason as you-so Adam doesn’t feel like he’s the only one handling this situation (altho my husband doesn’t feel so strongly about this as I do and does occassionally eat strawberry jam for example in front of Adam eventho Adam is allergic to strawberries). I guess that’s why I found Z’s comments so troublesome-because they really expose how ‘different’ Adam is in the food department and I think the more you can minimise that feeling the better.

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