Supporting your child to manage their food allergies
Whether it’s encouraging your child to start ordering for themselves at a restaurant or allowing your teenager more independence, letting go and handing over control can be particularly difficult for the parents and carers of children with food allergies.
So how can you prepare your child to become more independent in managing their food allergy and what age is the “right” age to get started?
You know your child best
Children develop at different rates, and you know your child best. That’s why there are no hard and fast rules about when your child should become more independent in managing their food allergy.
That said, most paediatric allergy experts agree that it’s good to start early and to take things slowly, rather than having a mad panic as your child heads off to secondary school.
Professor Graham Roberts is one of the leading authorities on adolescence and food allergy and told The Allergy Team that 11 is a “sentinel” age. He’s clear that by the time they start secondary school, children should be confident when it comes to knowing what they can and can’t eat and managing their medication. But he says the journey to get to that point can start much earlier through activities such as cooking and food shopping, “turn to your child who’s got food allergies when they’re six or seven and go through the ingredients’ list with them and let them point out whether the food is sensible or not.”
Managing medication and adrenaline pens
By the time your child goes to secondary school, they will need to be managing their medication themselves to some extent. For example, they will be expected to carry their own adrenaline pens. So start getting them into the habit of looking after their own devices well in advance of that transition.
Sarah Knight, mum of two boys with allergies and Founder of The Allergy Team says, “From when my son was about 8 I would make sure he was carrying his pen to football practice, sports camps and playdates. I also spoke to the school so that from Year 5 he was starting to carry his pens on school trips. We will soon be encouraging him to carry his pens around the school in Year 6 to get him fully prepared for secondary school.”
It’s natural for teenagers to want more independence and you can build up to this slowly. For example, if they’re visiting a friend across the street you might want to resist the temptation to remind them to take their AAI – if they forget it, you’re really close by, but it will force them to think for themselves.
University student, Hannah Copas, says she was taught to use her EpiPen from a young age: “We used to use old EpiPens that had expired, and we would inject them into grapefruits and things like that to practise.”
If you want your child to practise you can use a trainer pen from the manufacturer (they are easy to order on the EpiPen and Jext websites) and you can take a look at our demonstration videos for EpiPen and Jext.
Another great way of supporting your child to become more independent is to encourage them to go on school residential trips, most primary schools run these from Year Four. Although the idea of your child spending nights away can be anxiety-inducing for allergy parents, Professor Roberts says residentials are a great first step towards independence because they have the same safety nets around them that are in place at school and provide a great opportunity for a child to have some freedom and responsibility but surrounded by people they know, in a secure environment.
You can read one mum’s top tips for preparing for your child’s first residential and managing their allergies in our Stories section.
Adolescence and starting secondary school
Hormonal changes and the menstrual cycle can make allergic reactions worse, and adolescence is often a time when young people become more self-conscious about their food allergies. Teenagers are also more likely to take risks.
There are things you can do to support your child during this time, particularly as they start secondary school and with it face the challenges of larger classes, less supervision, a big canteen, different peer pressures and other exciting, but possibly daunting, changes.
– Uniform: where possible try to make sure your child’s uniform and/or school bag is suitable for carrying around their medication.
– Reduce size of medical bag: Professor Roberts suggests making your child’s medical bag as small as possible, he adds, “I like blazers – they usually have a zipped pocket inside and you can usually get auto-injectors in those with the (antihistamine) tablet so that wherever your child is in that school, they’ve got their auto injector.”
If your child still takes liquid antihistamine, see if they can swap to tablets which are much less bulky to carry around and can be slipped easily and discretely into a pocket or wallet.
– Talk to the school: good communication with your child’s school is really important. At secondary level parents generally have far less contact with teachers and other staff than at primary school, so it’s a good idea to find out who your point of contact is at school and who is in charge of allergy management. You might want to discuss in advance how the school is going to talk to other pupils about your child’s allergies and how they are going to be identified to staff so they don’t feel embarrassed or singled out when term starts.
– Visit the school: this helps your child becomes familiar with the layout, where they will be eating and when. You may want to talk to your child about having to move around for different lessons, clubs or PE and discuss how they will remember to carry their medicines from A to B or whether they need a second set of medication.
– Find out about the catering options: understanding how your child will get their food is important before they start. Secondary school dining halls are often very busy places with a thousand students getting their meals in a short space of time. Speak to the school about how they manage allergies and form a plan with your child to keep them safe. If it feels too overwhelming, while they get to know the school they may choose to take in a packed lunch.
For lots of children, secondary school is all about fitting in with the crowd. For teens with allergies, this can be especially hard. Hannah experienced this first hand: “I didn’t really tell many people about my allergies… I didn’t really want to stand out and I felt like that was something that would make me stand out.”
This is something Professor Roberts hears repeatedly: “So what I tend to do in a clinic is flip it and say your best friend has a milk allergy… but they worry that you might actually drop them as a friend. What would you think about that? And of course, they say, I would want to know my best friend has a milk allergy and I want to be helpful.”
Kissing with food allergies
Let’s face it, a first kiss can be awkward enough without having to ask your potential love interest lots of questions first. However, having an allergic reaction in the middle of a kiss isn’t very romantic either. People with food allergies need to make sure that the person they are kissing hasn’t eaten any of their allergens beforehand and remember that food like nuts or cheese can lodge in the teeth or mouth and could be transferred during kissing. It’s best for your teen to make sure the person they want to kiss has brushed their teeth beforehand or avoided their allergens altogether.
Alcohol and food allergies
Not only can drinking alcohol lead to a more severe allergic reaction, it can also mean your teen will become less vigilant about their food allergies. Even though they might seem too young to drink or you might not approve of teenage drinking, its likely your child will be exposed to social drinking and or drug taking at some point. So having an honest conversation about the additional adverse effects it might have on them due to their food allergy is important.
Relying on friends
The Food Standards Agency is running a scheme called Speak Up for Allergies to boost the confidence of young people with food allergies by encouraging their friends to support them.
Supportive friends can make your child’s life much easier, if age-appropriate consider showing them how to administer adrenaline.
Hannah told us how she found a great friendship group who would arrange socials other than going to a restaurant, such as a picnic where you bring your own food.
Her advice for teenagers: “Don’t be afraid to tell people about your allergies because if you find a good group of friends, they’ll want to know… all my friends asked to learn how to use my EpiPen… they want to keep me safe… they will change plans to make you feel included. And that’s it, it’s just about finding good friends.”
Remember, you can use our training videos for your child’s friends.
Going to university and leaving home with allergies
Hannah admits that university life has its challenges for those with allergies.
“I was worried about using the communal kitchen. I was worried what would happen if I didn’t get understanding flatmates, who would cook with my allergens and not clean up after. (But) I was really, really lucky with the flatmates I got… I told them about my allergies during Freshers’ Week, I think the first or second night I told them just because from a safety point of view… and they were so understanding…It didn’t really impact my experience much at all I would say. I think as a flat obviously we didn’t really go out to eat. We would go for drinks more.”
Hannah’s tips for starting university with food allergies
– Don’t be afraid to tell your flatmates about your allergies and do it sooner rather than later.
– Lots of unis allow you to have a mini fridge in your room. If you’ve got allergies so you can keep open food here rather than in the communal fridge.
– This sounds really strange but buy all your kitchenware and crockery in one colour. A lot of people at uni, share cutlery and crockery, and I chose to buy all red kitchenware so that my flatmates would know which is mine and what not to use because there’s a big risk of cross-contamination if someone doesn’t wash something up properly.
– Stock up (on food) before you go. I had a big box under my bed… because I only had one supermarket within a 20-minute commute.
UNIVERSITY WITH ALLERGIES
For more tips on managing university with a food allergy, read Ayah’s story.
She explains how, with careful planning and good friends, she made the most of being a student.