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.”
Written By Guest Blogger: Lori Moussapour, MA, LMSW
(Originally posted on www.ToEmpowerU.com; republished with author permission)
Mistakes are Opportunities to Learn
We all learn from our errors. After reading somewhere that “mistakes are opportunities to learn,” I used the mantra repeatedly with my own kids, suffering for years the subsequent eye roll, hoping that I drilled patience, risk taking and resilience into them, with such overt and subliminal messaging. But could I walk that talk? Could I tolerate my own parenting errors with self-compassion? Parenting mistakes are the hardest to endure, because the work matters more than any other. And what happens when the mistakes involve exposing your child to her food allergen accidentally?
I need more than one hand to count the times I made critical errors, exposing my daughter to her allergens. Even though my errors stemmed from inadequate education, as opposed to irresponsibility, the guilt and fear I felt after each mistake was profound. Nonetheless, I started to realize that every error taught me invaluable lessons, ones that actually helped me in my efforts to keep her safe.
Hidden Ingredients and Age Appropriate Expression of an Allergic Reaction
My youngest was diagnosed as allergic to eggs somewhere around nine months. Within 6 to 8 months of that day, I served her a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise. Can you imagine my guilt and panic as she tried to place her entire fist into her mouth? This mistake taught me the importance of identifying hidden allergens, and really reading labels. It also taught me about how preverbal infants and toddlers might express distress while undergoing an allergic reaction and led me to read up on the myriad ways that kids verbalize or indicate allergic distress.
Tether your Toddler!
A few months later, while traveling in Turkey, my husband and daughter went to a cafe for breakfast. Our little one toddled around the cafe interacting with a few other customers and the waiter, who found her particularly adorable, offered her a cookie. My husband, who feared an egg exposure, raced over and only arrived in time to scoop it out of her mouth. After a horrific reaction, that we later learned was anaphylaxis, we discovered that she also was severely allergic to hazelnut (and a host of other tree nuts.) This error taught us the importance of navigating your child’s independence (and in some cases even her measured distance from you) in healthy cultural and age appropriate contexts. For us this meant that we would be by her side until she understood and could be relied upon to never take food from strangers. Because we travel so much, it also meant that when in a country whose staple flour is an allergen, whose citizenry adores babies and toddlers and whose loving fingers seek cheeks to pinch and mouths to feed, toddlers needed to be tethered!
Beauty Products Beware!
Once after a long day’s work out of state I enjoyed a one hour debrief with colleagues, having coffee and eating snacks (mixed nuts) at a picnic bench near our work site. So far from home I relished the freedom to indulge in a treat I rarely ate, as we are a tree nut free home. I made the drive home in under 3 hours, without stops, trying to get there in time for a good night’s kiss. When I got home, my daughter asked me to help apply her lotion, as her eczema was flaring up. Without thinking (or washing my hands), I lathered her up - the entirety of her legs. To my horror, hives and welts grew at an alarming rate across her tiny limbs, and we had another sleepless and stress filled evening. I learned that I had to either be allergen free myself, or practice unequivocal handwashing after eating them. Two years later, on a dry spring evening, I shared my lip balm with my daughter, a brand she had used many times over. Soon thereafter her lips turned red, and began to swell. She was reacting to residue of something I had eaten presumably the last time I used the lip balm. This error taught me about the importance of vetting and not sharing makeup, especially lip or eye products. I carry two lip balms now - one for her and one for me.
Knowing when to use epinephrine is as important as how to use it!
One mistake could have been grievous. Following an accidental exposure to pistachio, while visiting family for a holiday card/craft writing activity, my daughter experienced two symptoms of reaction- an impending sense of doom and an odd sensation of dryness and fullness in her throat. I undervalued her panic and counted only one symptom, the physical one. I reached my doctor, luckily, who told me that we had a known exposure (pulverized baklava likely resulted in cross-contact on the shared markers), and she had two symptoms. She needed epinephrine!!! I always knew how to use an epinephrine auto-injector, but this mistake taught me the importance of being skilled at first recognizing when to use it (anaphylaxis.)
Degree of blame and responsibility… are all accidents equal?
I tip my hat to those of you who ask, “are all accidents equal?” I suspect they aren’t. The skeptics amongst you ask if trusting a waiter about a dessert’s ingredients is the same error as not bothering to read a label at all or not carrying epinephrine daily. While a small segment of our community may simply not treat food allergies with the seriousness it merits, research suggests that a large portion of accidental exposure nationwide results from barriers to needed financial and educational resources. A study conducted by Dr. Julie Wang of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute of Mount Sinai looked at parental behaviors and food allergy risks, and found that almost half of the parents surveyed reported at least one risky behavior, such as not reading food labels or not carrying epinephrine. The authors hypothesized that these behaviors were likely a results of knowledge gaps, misconceptions and financial burdens. More research needs to be done on where accidental exposures take place, under whose care, when and most importantly, why.
Your best teacher is your last mistake
But even with a clearer understanding of exemplary behaviors, based on ideal education, global access to resources and medication, and reduced financial barriers to healthcare, parents are human! We will err, indeed with the best of intentions. Parenthood is the hardest job we ever have and yet there is no description or play book to help you through it. And those of us whose kids have food allergies live every day with added vigilance. The stakes are higher and so we must understand our allergens, read labels carefully, wash our hands when needed, not share food or skin products, and readily recognize and respond to allergic reactions. One famous quote, attributed to Ralph Nader, resonates strongly with me. “Your best teacher is your last mistake.” I submit that when we err, we let enough guilt in to refocus on needed vigilance, but we offer ourselves enough compassion and care to embrace the teachers in our life, mistakes included! I know I have had my share!
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