Holidays and Celebrations
Hooray for celebrations – Valentines, Passover, birthdays, slumber parties, graduations, Christmas, Hannukah, Halloween, summer camp, school trips… Most look forward to these celebrations, but for parents of food allergic children, these events are often filled with “anxious” anticipation instead of joyful anticipation. Often, it is not until we live with food allergies that we realize how central food is to many of these celebrations. As parents, we want to include our children in these celebrations, yet we also experience fear and worry about our ability to ensure the safety of our child.
How a family copes with these special events depends on many factors:
- Age of the child
- Child’s developmental maturity
- Extent of our experience with food allergy – ranging from newly diagnosed to having lived with allergy for years
- What past experiences we’ve had in terms of previous allergic reactions
- Environment – our familiarity with the location with the location of the event – home, school, out of town, hall, restaurant, etc.
- Will the parent accompany the child?
- If unaccompanied, are we confident in the caregiver’s ability to cope with the allergy?
- The family’s general coping style/perspective – how a family copes on a day to day basis with food allergy
There is no one right way to handle these special events, but as Voltaire stated “No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.” Therefore, I believe, with some advance thinking and preparation, we can use these events to teach valuable life skills to our children. These events are opportunities for us to teach our children problem solving skills, learn to cope with life’s unavoidable disappointments, develop positive coping strategies and, by including them in the decision making, hopefully increasing their own sense of safety. The following are some possible ideas/strategies aimed at ensuring the safety of the child and creating an enjoyable, not fear focused, experience for all.
- Children should carry an auto-injector at all times. If the auto-injector is not carried on their person, make sure the caregivers know where it is located and that it is an easily and quickly accessible location.
- It is recommended that children wear a MedicAlert™ bracelet as the bracelet identifies their allergy, medical information, treatment required and emergency contact numbers.
Advance Preparation is Key
There’s an old saying – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Thus, it is important for the parent and child to talk about the celebration in advance. First, as parents, it is important to acknowledge our own anxieties and feelings – talk to your spouse, friend, another parent, someone at the AAIA for support, discuss what is difficult for you in that situation and how you might handle your concerns. Remember that children do not always perceive things the way adults do. As is age appropriate, ask your child how she/he feels about this event, what are their concerns and thoughts. Next, listening is key. Sometimes children just need their feelings to be heard and are not asking us to “fix” the problem. Acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that it is normal to feel angry, disappointed, or left out - if for example they can not participate in an event like most.
Now it is time to move from feelings to action. Depending on the age of child, include them in finding solutions to the problems you have identified. If there is a caregiver other than a parent ensure well in advance that the caregiver has a basic understanding of allergy, knows the emergency action plan, knows and is comfortable with the technique of giving an auto-injector. Have them practice with a trainer injector and ask if the caregiver has any concerns. If there are foods that the child can not have, ask the child to help you decide on appropriate substitutes he/she could have instead – special treats given to teacher in advance, is there a microwave to heat food from home, etc. Try to focus more on the activity aspect of the celebration verses focusing on the food – for example, decorating the house, the religious service, the games, and so on.
We all know that no matter how much we prepare, many things are outside of our control. Special events are often filled with lots of constant activity. This is why it is important to decide on an action plan with your child and caregivers in case an allergic reaction occurs. Again, as is age appropriate, role play with your child what would happen if he/she does have an allergic reaction – teach your children what symptoms to be aware of, who to ask for help, what happens after the auto-injector is given, what happens at the hospital, etc. By anticipating situations in advance, we can also role play situations with our child and help him or her to develop ways of coping with these challenges. For example, “What would you do if all your friends told you for sure that this food is safe and wanted you to eat it? What would you say?” Practicing gives the child a sense of control and develops their self-confidence in their ability to cope.
In summary, it is important to be aware of our own feelings and devise strategies to cope with our own anxieties. Remember to ask how your child feels about that particular celebration. Allow them to express their feelings and acknowledge their concerns. Celebrations provide us with the opportunity to teach valuable life skills to our children. Depending on the child’s age, by including the child in the decision making and anticipating challenges, we can minimise their disappointments and create a safer environment.
Although dealing with celebrations of any kind may be difficult at times, it is important to try to keep the allergy in perspective. Despite our best intentions, we can not control everything. Remind and reassure yourself that there are effective safeguards in place to help your child if the worst case scenario does occur and your child has a reaction. The auto-injector is available, Medic Alert™ provides quick access to medical information and contacts, the caregivers are trained, and you have discussed an emergency action plan with all involved.
As a mom who has lived with an anaphylactic child for five years, I know it is not easy. We feel sad to see our child left out, worry that the caregivers may not recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction and fear the unknowns. But, I also know that celebrations are a normal, unavoidable and important part of our child’s development. So, like everything else with parenting, we can only do our best. Do not hesitate to call the AAIA to link up with other parents living with the same situation and by attending any support meetings in your area.
With each celebration safely and happily past we know we can breath a sigh of heavy relief – at least until the next invitation arrives at our door step.