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Food Allergies

Caution, Relatives Ahead

SOME FAMILIES, OF COURSE, are tougher cases. Susan Carter* of St. Catharines, Ontario, can vividly recall the heartbreak of missing a Mother’s Day brunch with her side of the family. They had refused to change the restaurant location after discovering that most of the dishes were fried in peanut oil. “My son’s peanut allergy came on when he was 5 years old,” Carter says, “so it seems to be harder for my family to understand than if he had been allergic from age 1. It seems to me that they are ‘waiting for us to come to our senses’, while we are awaiting the same from them.”

Nancy Wiebe, creator of the Calgary Allergy Network, an affiliate of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association, says that in a situation like this, you have to be persistent and appraise the risks. She recommends education, patient diplomacy, and even firmness in the manner in which you explain your child’s needs. It can take time for your concerns to be taken seriously. “Advertisers know that we have to hear a message many, many times before we really hear it,” she says. With allergies, this also holds true.

Mandell agrees that communication is key – and stresses the importance of trying to stay calm while discussing, offering to provide missing information rather than arguing. She finds this particularly helpful for weeding out inaccurate or anecdotal information. The experts also recommend watching a video about anaphylaxis with family members rather than just providing reading material. “Often, in-laws don’t read the information you give them,” Mandell says. “You can watch a video together, and you can pause it or rewind it and deal with each area they may not understand or they disbelieve.

”Wiebe also points out that if your child is old enough, she should be taught the “away from home” eating rules, in which she will eat only her own food or food approved by her parents. She should be taught to feel comfortable in politely refusing questionable food that’s offered – sometimes insistently – by relatives.

The professor reminds that coping with allergies is a big undertaking. “Expecting grandparents to be responsible for reading labels is asking them to be experts in the same way that parents have to be, and that’s not fair. The trick is to make grandparents understand that this is not a trust issue; rechecking labels is part of a parents’ routine.”

The same holds true for all relatives. Remember our Easter Egg hunt? My sister apologized for missing the warnings, and we exchanged the unsafe candy for safe treats for Cayley. It also made my husband and me realize early on that, ultimately, we are responsible for our daughter’s allergy. At least until she is old enough to take on the job for herself.

*Name changed by request

Visiting the Relatives

Here are some tips from the experts to make family get-togethers easier:

  • Teach relatives the different names that your child’s allergen can have, but don’t expect them to become expert label readers. That remains your job.
  • Bring food for your child to eat if there is too much risk of cross-contamination in the kitchen.
  • Pin an allergy awareness button on a young child (especially if he is non-verbal) to serve as a constant visual reminder.
  • Do not assume that allergy education is a one-shot job for relatives. Call prior to the gathering to discuss the menu, then start get-togethers with a brief reminder about your child’s allergy.
  • Assess risk according to your child’s age, allergy awareness and maturity. Young children put lots of things into their mouths and need all allergens put out of reach; older kids should simply follow their “away from home” rules about eating (e.g. eating only their own food or food approved by their parents and that it’s correct to turn down questionable food from other adults, even insistent relatives).
  • Make your relatives aware that your child never eats without his epinephrine auto-injector (and perhaps inhalers) on hand. This drives home the seriousness of food allergy.
  • Asking for, rather than demanding, a relative’s help works amazingly well.
  • Family relationships can be complicated; if a problem pops up with food, stay focused on that and avoid dragging other issues into the situation.
  • Remember that no one wants to harm your child; stay positive, take a deep breath before you address potential problems. And remember to have fun. –M.C.B.

First published in Allergic Living magazine. To order an issue or to subscribe, click here.

© Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.


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