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Help the School ‘Get’ Food Allergies

Sometimes we hear of community resistance to food allergy accommodations. For instance, back in 2011, parents at one Florida school went so far as to hold protests  over the accommodations requested for a first grader with a peanut allergy.

That uproar resonated with me because of a similar controversy in my district several years ago – and it involved my son.

Before Daniel’s first day of kindergarten, I developed a plan with school administrators to keep him safe from his allergens. Although we made every effort to keep the impact on other students to a minimum, some parents saw the restrictions on certain foods in the classroom as an infringement on their rights.

In fact, one mom was so miffed that she rallied a group of parents and they protested at several local school-board meetings, inviting the media. School administrators went to battle for me, and in the end, not a single word of my son’s plan was changed.

Since that time, I have worked with thousands of allergy parents navigating the school system, trying to help others “get” food allergies. Here’s what I’ve found works – and what doesn’t.

Tell the truth. Never exaggerate. A significant portion of people still don’t believe that food allergies are real. When we say things like, “If she touches it, she will die,” it lessens our credibility. If the truth is, “If she ingests even a trace amount of this food, she could die without proper treatment,” then say that. The truth is frightening enough.

Be meticulous with your words and language. When we use analogies like the “loaded gun,” we may be written off as anxious or crazy. Most people simply cannot compare a sip of milk or a bite of a cookie to a loaded gun. It doesn’t matter if we’re right. It matters that they can hear us.

Share a story. I tried for years to explain food allergies to my sisters. But it wasn’t until I shared Sabrina Shannon’s story through her radio documentary “A Nutty Tale [1]” that they truly understood. One sister called me immediately afterwards and said, “Oh my God. So this is what you are dealing with.”

Sabrina died from an allergic reaction to a trace amount of dairy on French fries served in her school cafeteria. There is no argument with this story. And every parent on some level can relate to the fear of losing a child.

Use a tone they can hear. Be mindful of your tone when meeting with parents, teachers or school administrators. Some allergy parents feel anxious and uncomfortable in such meetings; others feel fired up and want to go in with guns blazing. Do your best to have an even tone and expect the best from others.

Show them we’re on the same page. Sometimes teachers or administrators resist learning to administer an epinephrine auto-injector, or they don’t see the need to restrict certain foods from the classroom. What can help is sharing the fact that there are teachers whose lives are changed when a child dies in their classroom. Let parents, teachers and administrators see that our lives are not the only ones that will be affected if a careless mistake costs a life.

Ask for what you need – but not more. It can be terrifying to send an allergic child to school. However, as parents, our goal is to ensure a reasonably safe environment – not to eliminate all risk. Think of this way: When you teach your child to ride a bike, you give him a helmet and training wheels. Gradually, you lift up the training wheels until you remove them altogether. There may be a few skinned knees – just like there may be a few hives at school. But the price of trying to remove all risk is too high for any child. All kids deserve a full and vibrant life.

We are all ambassadors, hoping to enlighten and educate others about our cause: living with food allergies. There will be hiccups along the way, but if we stoop to name-calling, exaggerating or taking an adversarial stance, then we’re not much better than those picketing parents.

Let’s model healthy problem solving for our children by showing them how to collaborate and communicate. Remember, they’re watching us every step of the way.

Gina Clowes is a certified life coach specializing in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder and director of AllergyMoms.com [2], an online support group serving thousands worldwide.  

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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