When I think of Valentine’s Day growing up I think of the fantastic heart boxes filled with gooey chocolates my dad would get for me, my sister and my mom. The best part was not knowing what would be inside each one! Then at school I would get to fill my colorfully decorated shoe box with notes, lollipops, stickers and chocolates from my classmates. Valentine’s Day meant chocolate!
Now, as a mom with a child with severe food allergies, Valentine’s Day doesn’t bring up nostalgic feelings of joy as much as it brings up fear and anxiety. This is the same fear that comes up around Easter, Halloween and Thanksgiving. Holidays are focused around food. No matter how big or small the holiday is, kids look forward to celebrating with treats while nut allergy moms secretly begins to go into panic mode.
For kids with food allergies, most Valentine chocolates are off limits. What is also surprising is that many of the holiday lollipops and sugar candies are as well. People who don’t live with allergies can underestimate the cross-contamination risk that comes along with foods that are not filled with nuts.
Keeping your child safe is a priority for all parents, however for a child at risk for anaphylaxis from a trace of food that people eat every day, concern over safety requires a whole new level of diligence.
Beyond safety is the emotional toll on kids that comes from watching friends and classmates enjoying treats and not being able to be a part of it. Birthday parties, classroom celebrations and holidays all usually mean watching your child sit with his or her “safe” treat while everyone else is enjoying something else. Even if the “safe” treat is good one, it is still different. No matter how much kids enjoy a bag of Oreos, it does not compare when EVERYONE ELSE is eating colorful, sprinkle filled treats. When you are only six or seven years old it matters.
When treats are given out in class, most if not all of the treats wind up being tossed out because they are not safe.
It isn’t easy, so here are 5 tips to keep in mind for nut allergy parents approaching Valentine’s Day this year…
Keep an Open Dialogue, With Everyone!
Plan ahead. Talk to your child’s teacher and other parents about your concerns. Go into to the class ahead of time and discuss the plans for celebrating in the classroom. Ask to speak with other moms who may be bringing in treats or food and bring a list of items that are safe for everyone. Also keep the dialogue open with your child. Acknowledge that sometimes they will not be just like everyone else. Talk with your child about it. Ask them how they feel about celebrations and staying safe. Keep the conversation going, even if it is a difficult one. Show them empathy and let them know how you feel as well. Let your child know that it is ok to feel big feelings and sometimes it can be hard. Remind them that Valentine’s Day is about showing love and compassion and that they can do that even with different treats. Different treats can be special too.
Create New Rituals
Cover their door with red and pink hearts the night before or give them fluffy stuffed animal or heart shaped toy. Surprise them with balloons or a card on Valentine’s Day morning. Look for safe treats or non-food ways to make them feel special. If they are having food in school make sure to send a special safe treat to the classroom, something they chose ahead of time. When making Valentine’s for the class, do it together. Stickers, playdoh, bubbles and toy cars all make great Valentine’s gifts.
Educate on Self -Advocacy
Life is full of unexpected twists and turns and learning how to manage those is an important skill kids need to have. Know that your children will be in situations without you where they need to know how to handle their allergies in future years. Being able to say “no thank you” even when food is offered by an adult is a tough thing to do for little ones. Teaching them when they are young how to stay safe will help them (and you) feel confident that they will be more independent. Practice at home how to have conversations about allergies. Teach them what questions to ask and role play with them so they feel confident they can do it when with friends or at school. Ultimately, they will be their very best advocate.
Work with your doctor to fill out a detailed action plan. Keep it written down with your epi-pen and emergency medications. Don’t ever assume you can go anywhere without it. Practice your plan. Have drills and practice the action steps. You can even use your expired epi-pens on fruit to get a more realistic feel for having to use it. No matter how good your plan is, it won’t be useful if you aren’t able to follow it.
It is really easy to focus on what we can’t do or can’t have when faced with challenges like food allergies. We think that by focusing on all the things that could go wrong we are being prepared. The reality is, we will make ourselves a bundle of anxiety and stress if we constantly see allergies as an obstacle. There are always challenges in life, food allergies just happen to be one of them. There is so much more to parties and celebrations than food. Help your kids recognize and appreciate the time with friends, craft projects, games and fun that goes along with Valentine’s Day. See challenges as opportunities to grow and learn more about nutrition and health and a way to increase awareness, insight and empathy for others. For many of us moms with kids with food allergies we find ourselves so caught up feeling mommy guilt that we have trouble recognizing all we have to be grateful for. We wonder if we had done something different would he or she not have this allergy. Remind yourself that you did not cause this allergy. Let go of any guilt that holds you back from seeing the big picture.
“Your Child is not his or her food allergies. She or he is a wonderful, beautiful, kind and spectacular kid who happens to have food allergies. Just because it is a part of everyday life does not mean it needs to be your entire life.”
When an editor for the American Counseling Association's online magazine, Counseling Today, reached out to me a couple of months ago to talk about food allergies, I was not only flattered, but excited that she wanted to learn more about this population.
Her goal? To write an article on how licensed counseling professionals can help and support clients with food allergies, especially those that are struggling to find an emotional balance.
The editor, Bethany Bray, asked thoughtful questions and listened intently to my responses. She truly took the time to put herself in the shoes of those managing a food allergy. After talking for an hour, she definitely had a better understanding of the emotions that many food allergic families feel, and got that this conversation was just the "tip of the iceberg" on this vast topic.
The article, entitled "Supporting clients through the anxiety and exhaustion of food allergies" was published last week. Boy, does it paint a pretty accurate picture! Those that have read it has shared that they felt that it truly hit on some of the emotions that aren't always as well-represented, such as the feelings of burnout and exhaustion.
The American Counseling Association is "the world's largest organization representing professional counselors in various practice settings." Their online magazine, Counseling Today, is read by thousands of counselors, which means the topic of supporting clients with food allergies has been shared with many in this helping profession.
So let's tell them thanks! Consider leaving a supportive comment on their article to let the American Counseling Association (and the editor) know that we thank them for exploring food allergies and sharing tips with counselors so they are better prepared to understand the needs of the food allergic community. (Be sure to click on the article link, in the text above, or posted again below, and leave a comment there so that they see it).
Article: Supporting Clients Through the Anxiety and Exhaustion of Food Allergies
(If you're reading this, you've likely already read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of the "4 Things Counselors Should Know About Food Allergies" series. If not, I'd suggest you read those first).
In the previous three posts, I covered topics focused on the many layers of food allergy-related anxiety and fear, food labeling concerns, and the lack of support that many find from schools and family. The final post in this series has to do with the counseling considerations that counseling professionals should be aware of when working with clients managing food allergies.
#4 - A Collaborative Team Approach Is Crucial....
And Be Mindful With Exposure Therapy Techniques
A Collaborative Team Approach is Crucial
Ideally, those diagnosed with food allergies would routinely see their allergist, as well as their GP doctor, but they would also be given referrals to allied healthcare professionals in case they may be useful. This list might include counseling professionals, dietitians, dermatologists, gastroenterologists, and even educational consultants w/food allergy knowledge.
Some larger medical hospitals and institutions already take a true collaborative team approach within their food allergy departments, including having a counseling professional on staff. However, you'll typically be working with food allergic clients in your own office and therefore, will need to create your own collaborative team approach with your client's medical doctors and other allied healthcare professionals.
Food allergic clients typically visit their allergist annually (or more often, if necessary). Allergists will determine or confirm food allergy diagnoses, and help their clients establish emergency action plans and safety guidelines. Therefore, at the very least, you'll want to connect with your food allergic client's allergist for continuity of care if the client allows. Sometimes perceptions and statistics don't align when it comes to evaluating risk factors. Therefore, especially if you're not well-versed in food allergies, being able to reach out to their allergist will prove useful in situations where you may want to clarify the likelihood of reactions or other food allergy facts, as they pertain specifically to your client. Additionally, the allergist will find it useful knowing what may be causing the client increased food allergy fears, anxiety, or emotional distress, as well as the progress being made and overall goals for counseling.
A Few Words on Specific Counseling Concepts and Goals
While exposure therapy type of techniques may benefit many clients presenting with specific fears and anxiety, even those with food allergies, you'll need to be mindful of one very important point: The goal of counseling should never be to work up to exposing the person to their allergen in order to eliminate food allergy fears! Any allergen exposure needs to be determined by the client and their allergist together, not the counselor. After all, the core of food allergies lies within the medical realm.
With that being said, a counselor can still be very helpful in guiding the client through the progression of food allergy appointments, testing, treatments, and fears. For those managing food allergies, appointments can include skin tests, blood draws, and even food challenges, where people actually ingest their allergen if deemed appropriate (this is typically based on lab results and determined by the allergist). Many, especially kids, may have fears or anxiety about these appointments, so helping them develop coping strategies and tools to navigate these scenarios is a great counseling goal.
Clients managing food allergies would benefit from Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) work, which will help them identify and manage stress, acknowledge unhealthy (and healthy) thoughts and behaviors that may play a role, and learn how to challenge them and establish new ones. However, CBT isn't the only type of counseling that will help clients with food allergies. A variety of counseling theories and techniques may be useful in working with food allergies, as long as they're proving effective with the client.
Here is a sampling of other clinical counseling goals you may establish when working with food allergic clients (goals will vary widely depending on the client):
Living with food allergies can be an extremely emotional experience, so there will be many opportunities where you'll need to help the client reality test to find a balance between emotions and facts. Balance is a key necessity for living with food allergies, since it's a marathon and not a sprint. Balance of emotions, balance of facts, balance of coping strategies. As food allergies threaten to throw that balance off kilter, sometimes on a daily basis, it's crucial to think about the bigger picture when working with food allergic clients. The work will be hard and gut-wrenching at times, but extremely rewarding, especially when you see a child or its family learning how to live an empowered life with food allergies as a direct result of the work you've done together.
If you're working with a client who has food allergies and feel you need more information to educate yourself, check out the following resources, in addition to the links within this post:
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