Jo Frost, also known as Supernanny, shared her insights with us about living with food allergies herself and tips for parents raising children with food allergies.
Childcare expert and child advocate Jo Frost, also known to many of her television fans as Supernanny, is living her dream, having a wonderful experience doing what she absolutely loves: Helping families. Since coming to the U.S. from the United Kingdom she has travelled to 47 states and stayed in the homes of countless families. Jo does not let her life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and crustaceans hold her back!
Jo's Childhood with Food Allergies
In fact, Jo has never let her life-threatening food allergies hold her back. “I never felt ‘injured’ by it,” Jo says, “and it didn’t stop me from having a childhood that I remember fondly. I love sports. I played netball (a game similar to basketball), ran, swam and rode my bike. Food allergies made me very aware and cautious, very diligent, and I learned to have a voice and speak up. I learned to work alongside this medical condition, but have never let it get in the way of goals I want to achieve in life.”
Coming to America
That said, Jo was shocked when she came to the U.S. and discovered that the U.S. is far behind the U.K. in the areas of food allergy awareness, education and accommodations. “I was shocked. It slapped me in the face!” Jo explains. “In the U.K. they believe in taking steps to prevent allergic reactions. For example, there are several airlines that understand anaphylaxis and life-threatening food allergies. They will make announcements to politely ask people to refrain from eating peanuts and tree nuts, and they’re glad to do what they can to help.
“Here the airlines are completely inconsistent regarding their policies. One minute I’ll be met by flight attendants that personally would be more than happy to help. The next minute I step on board and I’m told that it’s a problem, that they can’t accommodate me. On one plane I’ll be told that (serving nuts or not serving nuts) is the pilot’s decision. On another I’ll be told that it’s not the pilot’s decision, that it’s the airline’s policy. It’s extremely frustrating.”
Although airline travel has been an ongoing challenge, Jo has had very positive experiences with the families with whom she stays. How does she manage the situation? With a lot of help! The television production crews arrive a few days before she does. One of the staff members educates the family about Jo’s life-threatening food allergies and explains that for the duration of Jo’s stay the allergenic foods must be removed from the home and the family’s pets must be boarded or housed at a neighbor’s home. Then a cleaning crew goes in and thoroughly cleans the entire house, including the sofas and other surfaces. The system works well, and all of the families she has helped have been “fantastic.”
The Need for Education
Jo sees a strong need for education in the U.S., and she’s gotten heavily involved in food allergy advocacy and awareness programs. “The education really needs to be drummed home here,” she states. “The more we educate Americans about life-threatening food allergies, the more understanding there will be. More understanding leads to a more empathetic attitude and more willingness to help.”
One thing that Jo sees as an unfortunate side effect of the lack of widespread food allergy education is that it leaves food allergy sufferers feeling guilty about the impact their condition has on others. “From talking to hundreds of families, teenagers and adults with food allergies, I’ve seen that a lot of people with life-threatening food allergies feel like it’s an inconvenience to others,” Jo explains. “Consequently, they don’t want to put anyone out. Some report that people seem to respond to them as though they are ‘prima donnas’ or simply seeking attention. But this is a medical condition that you or your child has. To all of those who feel like they’re being a burden, I say that there is nothing to feel guilty about. By speaking up you’re simply showing competence and assertiveness to make sure that you keep your child or yourself safe. And there are ways we can respectfully address these matters.”
Part of this, Jo continues, is the idea that we should “educate to distinctly show that there’s a difference between ‘allergies,’ such as allergies to pollen or dander or mold, and ‘life-threatening food allergies.’ It’s so nonchalant here. ‘Oh, I have allergies,’ people will say. But people who have life-threatening allergies should not be nonchalant. If you or your child has life-threatening allergies it’s important that you use your voice.
“For example, at a restaurant you can say, ‘I want to bring to your attention that I have life-threatening food allergies. I carry my auto-injectors with me. I would like to speak with a manager as I would love to eat in your restaurant, but I want to clear a few things so I can be safe doing so.’”
Jo's Advice for Parents of Kids with Life-Threatening Food Allergies
In her latest book, “Jo Frost's Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior,” Jo presents her three-step S.O.S. Method. “S.O.S.” stands for “Step Back, Observe, Step In,” and Jo points out that this is an excellent framework for food allergy management, which always requires a lot of awareness and preparation.
“A big part of being able to maneuver around this medical condition, to adapt, be fluid, diligent and aware, is to be prepared,” Jo explains. “The S.O.S. Method allows us to step back for a moment, observe the situation, and then step back in with a game plan. For example, say your child is going on a playdate. You step back and recognize that this situation requires some planning. You observe that the playdate will take place during lunch time. Then you step back in with a game plan. You need to ring the other parent to discuss the allergies, determine if you need to send lunch, resolve all of the issues. This is the S.O.S. Method in action.”
- Have a voice. Education and awareness is so important, and we all must be our own best advocates. In addition to speaking up yourself, Jo urges parents to teach their children how to have a voice, too, to think for themselves and be smart about their own medical conditions. With this comes competence, diligence, responsibility and, ultimately, confidence.
- Always stay two steps ahead of the game. Be diligent. Think about where you or your child might be, and how this situation may impact his or her food allergies. Carry the epinephrine auto-injectors. Read all labels. Make sure everybody else around your child is educated about the food allergies. Be assertive but polite.
- When in doubt, leave it out. If you are not certain that something is safe to eat, do not eat it. Never take risks.
- Role play with your child. For the younger ones, this is about getting them used to the concept that they have these food allergies. For older children and teens, it’s teaching them how to responsibly respond to situations that are likely to come up. Think of the likely scenarios that you want them to be able to successful overcome. If it’s potentially awkward, such as dating situations, you definitely need to talk about it!
- Remember that repetition instills. When it comes to educating others, don’t feel like you shouldn’t be repeating yourself. Things often have to be repeated many times before they are truly learned and remembered.
- Don't feel apologetic. “I never walk into a restaurant and apologize for something I was born with!” Jo exclaims. “It’s never, ‘Hi, sorry to put you out.’ Instead it’s ‘I just want to let you know, just want to help you so you can help me…’”
- Pay attention to your mindset and attitude. Avoid a “victim” mentality, and don’t get bogged down in fear. Your child has a medical condition. Keep in mind that your attitude will project and impact how your child feels about and manages this condition. Be diligent and assertive, and lessen the anxiety by having and implementing appropriate precautions. Know that you’re doing all you can to keep your child as safe as you can. But don’t start down the “woe is me” path. Jo’s response to parents who say, “How will I cope?” is this: “I don’t feel like I ‘cope.’ I work alongside my medical condition. I don’t feel like I was robbed of childhood, and as an adult my life-threatening food allergies haven’t stopped me from my life work.”
- Keep things in perspective. Although you should not minimize the risks and realities, you also want to avoid over-reacting to a place where the anxiety is so high that it consumes and saturates your existence. “Allergies are part of my day every day,” Jo says, “but they certainly don’t consume my day or define me. I am at peace with the fact that I am a woman with a medical condition. I look at how I will maneuver around obstacles that present themselves if they affect the fact that I have a life-threatening allergy. And I get on with my life doing what I do.”
Remember, once you and your child have confidence it will all become second nature because, as Jo puts it, “food allergies are just a matter of fact. There it is. Now what can we do about it?”
Best known as the “Supernanny,” childcare expert and child advocate Jo Frost has always had a natural gift for connecting with kids and helping parents navigate milestones with practical, easy solutions. With more than 25 years of experience in the family arena and the success of her hit television shows "Supernanny," "Extreme Parental Guidance," and this summer’s "Family S.O.S. with Jo Frost", she’s proven her ability to bring peace and stability to any home.
You can visit her online at www.JoFrost.com or follow her on Twitter @Jo_Frost.