Talking to Our Kids About Food Allergies: Children Believe Grownups
by Michael Pistiner MD, MMSc
Millions of kids really believe that an overweight man gets dragged around the world in a single night by a team of flying reindeer, allowing enough time for him to shimmy up and down chimneys everywhere. Equally amazing is the mythical being that flies, visits a vast number of children in a single night, has a non-stop cash flow, and superhuman strength to cart around a pouch filled with an enormous collection of teeth. Children believe what we tell them. The grownups in their lives can truly determine a child's reality. And when left to their own devices, our children's imaginations can run wild when they don't have the answers - a dark shadow on their wall at night can be a tell-tale sign of monsters lurking under their beds.
With food allergy can come uncertainty. In the face of this unknown, there is the opportunity for families, including children, to fill in the blanks with a scarier reality. Kids may believe that if an allergen touches their skin, they will die. I’ve asked many children to tell me how long the epinephrine auto-injector needle is and many demonstrate that they believe it is the length of the entire device. We need to correct these misperceptions.
What makes matters even trickier is when we need to discuss our child's food allergy with others who will be caring for them. If scary words are chosen while in earshot, then this can set the child's reality.
Words like severe, life-threatening, deadly and dangerous are enough to make the most fearless child nervous. If the child is present for these conversations, then we must consider what words are being used and we need to be prepared to have a follow up conversation with the child and answer any questions.
A challenging aspect of educating children is that each is an individual and has his own way of processing information and coping with a challenge. Health care providers may be very well versed in practical food allergy management strategies, but when they walk into an exam room, they may have no sense for their patient's temperament or personality. The education of our children regarding their food allergy needs to continue long after they leave the doctor's office, as parents can read their kids and have a sense for what they can handle.
If parents, the experts of their own children, are armed with practical, fact-based information about food allergy, its risks, and how to contain these risks, they can successfully educate their child in a way that will keep them safe and happy. This was a major goal of the new handbook, Living Confidently With Food Allergy. This resource is a two year American and Canadian collaboration lead by Anaphylaxis Canada. I had the honor of working with Dr. Jenny LeBovidge (child psychologist), and Anaphylaxis Canada's Laura Bantock, Lauren James, and Laurie Harada to create a free, easy-to-use, evidence-based handbook (online, PDF, and printed) designed to give parents the tools to keep their children with food allergies safe, while addressing their emotional needs. Once armed with fact based food allergy education, we can dispel frightening myths and empower our children to take good care of themselves, to be self-confident while doing so, and to keep being kids.
We must work together to educate and empower our children and our communities. With fact based and practical strategies coupled with clear, calm communication, we can replace uncertainty and fear with facts and empowerment.
Please be sure to check out and share Living Confidently With Food Allergy.
Additional resources/collaborations designed to empower families include Everyday Cool with Food Allergies, AllergyHome.org, Anaphylaxis.ca and material and resources at Kids With Food Allergies Foundation.
Michael Pistiner, MD, MMSc is a pediatric allergist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and is an instructor of pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital. He is the Chair of the Medical Advisory Team for Kids with Food Allergies Foundation and is a fellow in the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Dr. Pistiner is the father of a child with food allergies and a passionate food allergy educator and advocate. He is co-creator of www.allergyhome.org, a food allergy education site dedicated to providing practical teaching tools to those who care for children with food allergies. He serves as a voluntary consultant for the MA Department of Public Health, School Health Services and volunteers for multiple food allergy organizations including Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, New England Chapter. He received the American Medical Association Young Physician Section Community Service Award (2010) for his work on the Food Allergy Awareness in Restaurants Act. Additionally, he is the author of Everyday Cool With Food Allergies, a children's book designed to teach basic food allergy management skills to preschool and early school age children.