How to Talk to Kids About Food Allergies
"Nearly 5 percent of children under the age of five years old have food allergies."1
Dealing with food allergies in children can be overwhelming for both parents and the child; having an open line of communication with your kids about food allergies is key. It can be daunting to send your child out in the world without your protective eye on food packaging or being able to inspect food that may be offered to them. It is important to educate your child about their food allergies to empower them to make smart food choices and understand what it means to have a food allergy.
Talking to Young Kids About Food Allergies
For very young children, it is important to keep them safe and to help them understand certain foods may not be safe for them to eat. Communication will need to be simplified so they understand, but are not scared.
Start by explaining certain food may make their tummy hurt, may cause their skin to be it itchy, or make them just not feel well. Then identify which foods will do this – label foods as “unsafe foods” and “safe foods” while showing your child the food, photos of the food or food packaging. Knowing what the foods look like is the first step to avoiding potential risk.
Teach your child to only eat food given to them by parent, teachers, specific friends, or relatives – people you trust and know they understand your child’s food allergies. Your child should also know what to do in case they do start feeling unwell, or if they have an allergic reaction. Having an emergency plan in place with your child so they understand the importance of finding an adult to help them, to administer medicine or take them to the doctor.
Teach your child with food allergies how to read ingredient labels when they are old enough, take them grocery shopping with you to help choose “safe foods” and involve them in making meals or treats they can enjoy. Encourage open communication at home and with friends about food allergies so your child gets accustomed to telling others and openly shares about any food issues.
Give your child the tools to explain to others what their allergies are and what foods are safe for them to eat. Practice role playing and speaking to teachers, to friends, to other adults so they feel confident talking about their allergy. Help your child get comfortable answering questions, politely declining unsafe food that is offered and dealing with feeling left out if they can’t participate in something centered around an unsafe food.
Talking to Older Kids About Food Allergies
As your kids get older, they can understand more details about food allergies and why they have an allergy when others may not. Understanding the health risk and how to prevent allergic reactions will help your child take ownership to managing their allergies rather than just following ‘rules.’
Teaching your child that their food allergies are their body’s immune system reacting to certain foods; the more severe the reaction, the more they are allergic. These “allergens” can cause sneezing, itching, hives, stomach cramps, vomiting, trouble breathing and swelling. Understanding that some people are born with a genetic tendency to have allergies while others may have none. Also knowing the difference between a food intolerance (digestive system) and food allergies (immune system) – explained best here – will help them understand and explain the risk level of their allergens.
Teach older children about medications that may help prevent or ease an allergic reaction and schedule an appointment with your paediatrician who can demonstrate the use of epinephrine if an epipen applies to your child.
Be proactive when it comes to education around your child’s food allergies. Make learning about food allergies fun using books, toys and interactive online games to engage them in the process. Take cooking and baking classes together to learn how to substitute ingredients.
Teaching your child about food allergies may be a serious topic but the learning process can be fun!
*Be sure to consult your family physician if you suspect any food allergies or food sensitivities, conduct allergy tests when you can to confirm allergens and monitor your reactions each time ones occurs.