Family Food Feud: Relatives and Allergies

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: December 7, 2010

Some May Never Get It

For those who develop food allergies or celiac disease as adults, the process of health education can be particularly problematic, since family members have often seen the person eat the food in question all their lives – so no matter how much explaining is done, it just doesn’t seem to sink in.

Traci Cottingham’s husband did all the right things when he organized a 40th birthday celebration for his wife, who has celiac disease. He ordered a gluten-free cake, bought gluten-free foods, and asked family to bring some gluten-free items for a potluck. When she arrived, Cottingham was told she could eat anything she wanted – a rare and delightful treat.

But the next day, she was doubled over in pain. After a little detective work, Cottingham discovered that her own mother had been too busy to make safe meatballs, and instead had picked up a box from the local grocery store.

“I get that it’s time-consuming, but at least warn me that they have gluten,” says Cottingham. She was so exasperated by the experience that she didn’t speak with her mother for weeks, and took a pass on the invitation for Thanksgiving that year. Things are smoother now, but Cottingham adds, “I still don’t trust her cooking.”

Don’t Take the Bait But Do Communicate

When people feel they’re being ignored, and their health is being put at risk, emotions are bound to flare. But while many of us who live with allergies or celiac disease may have Vulcan-like calm while explaining food allergies or a gluten-free diet to a waiter or a teacher, we’re only one relative’s eye roll away from bursting into tears where family is concerned. So why do relatives push our buttons and make us react in a way we never do with friends or acquaintances?

Parenting coach and Parenting Network founder Beverley Cathcart-Ross says it has a lot to do with family dynamics. She explains that, as children, we typically fall into certain roles within the family – the exaggerator, the drama queen, the doormat, the flighty one – and our concerns are seen through that filter by other family members. Then mix that unresolved baggage with a stressful situation like a holiday gathering, and those pre-determined roles will affect how you react to your family members and, more significantly, how they react to you.

Cathcart-Ross says it’s important not take the bait, and instead step out of those roles and begin genuinely communicating. “Start behaving more self-respectfully within your family dynamic and slowly your family dynamic will change,” she says. “Because when one person changes, that person’s relationship with all the other family members changes.”

Thirty-five-year-old Rebecca Fishner from Park Ridge, New Jersey took this tack and it worked beautifully. When she was first diagnosed with multiple food allergies, she only ate food she or her mother had cooked – and that made her miserable, especially in social family gatherings. No matter how spectacular the food was that she brought, she was still eating it out of a container.

She understood that it took extra effort for relatives to cook safe food but, for her own self-respect, she decided to stop attending family functions until they tried to cook at least a few things she could eat. It took time and a few missed social events, but eventually it worked. “There are few things that feel as good as being able to really be a part of celebrating with your friends and family,” she says. “And I love them for it.”

Finding ‘Dual Respect’

Cathart-Ross calls this is an example of “dual respect” – that is, treating both your relatives and yourself with respect, instead of waiting for your family to do it.

“Dual respect is different from mutual respect. The flaw in mutual respect is you have no control over whether the other person will respect you back,” she says. “If you’re trying to treat your relatives with respect but they are not respecting your condition, it’s time for a change in approach.”

Of course, asking for that respect can sometimes be met with resistance. Trudy Lamontagne’s large extended family has many social gatherings, but when her son was first diagnosed with peanut and egg allergies at 15 months, the potluck food became a problem. Lamontagne tried to explain the dangers of cross-contamination and accidental ingestion to her older aunts and uncles, but no matter how delicately she broached the issue, they always seemed resistant.

Things came to a head after Lamontagne offered to make all of the desserts for a Father’s Day potluck – she was concerned that, with food coming from eight or 10 different kitchens, the risk was just too high. One of the aunts was offended that Lamontagne didn’t trust her cooking. Several family members took the aunt’s side.

“I was accused of trying to keep my son in a bubble. It was so much more personal because it was family. I expected a level of understanding and, when I didn’t get that, it made me feel like an outcast.”

Like many people in the same boat, Lamontagne stopped going to family gatherings for a while – and Cathcart-Ross says that’s not necessarily a bad idea when family members aren’t respecting health needs, or if the risk is simply too great.

“This is what we call the lesser of two evils – not your first wish, but better than the option of you or your child’s safety being at risk,” she says.

Next: When to Avoid and Not to Avoid Events