When I was growing up my parents would go to exhaustive lengths to ensure anyone who babysat me knew the full extent of my allergies, how to avoid triggers, and what to do incase I had contact with a potential allergen. As I got older, I switched roles and soon found that I was the babysitter now explaining to the children I was looking after why I couldn’t prepare them things like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
With the rate of childhood food allergies on the rise, it is becoming important to not over simplify or downplay your allergies when talking to children. Rather it is important to make sure they are told, in an age appropriate manner, what allergies are and the seriousness of an allergic reaction. From my perspective, there are two benefits that can result from taking the time to explain food allergies to children. The first obvious benefit is that a child is more likely to act appropriately around you with regards to your allergies. The second, larger benefit is the fact that, the more exposure to and education about allergies they receive, the more likely they are to understand the concept of food allergies in general.
One of the biggest things to keep in mind and assess when explaining food allergies to children is the actual age of the child and what they will be able to comprehend in terms of information and detail. You don’t need to go assessing where the child falls on Piaget’s Scale of Cognitive Development, but gain a sense of what is appropriate for them to learn based on things they already know. When talking to a child about food allergies, engage them in the conversation, ask them questions to assess their ability to understand what you are explaining and, if you have the time and are really creative, feel free to get interactive and even make a game about the information they are learning! Okay. So not every time you explain your allergies to a child will involve a game about say ‘matching food allergies with symptoms’. But try to always get to know the child you’re talking to and see what’s the best way you can relate to them and help them with understanding this important topic.
In terms about what information to address, again this will involve assessing why you are bringing this topic up with the child and what they will most benefit from learning. If this is a child’s first exposure to someone with allergies, the obvious conversation to start with is what allergies are. For a younger child, the most important piece to get across is the emphasis that some foods are very harmful if eaten or even touched by people with allergies. As a child gets older, they will be able to understand and even be interested in a more in-depth explanation of allergies. This can involve going on to explain the body’s immune system and how it can overreact and identify certain food items as allergens. If a child is exposed to someone, such as a playmate with severe allergies, it then might also be worth explaining about the treatment involved when someone is having an allergic reaction. The explanation can again vary but could involve emphasis on notifying an adult or someone who is able to activate EMS and provide immediate treatment with an auto-injector or, if appropriate, the child could be educated about the process of using an auto injector.
With food allergies on the rise, it is never too early to start educating children about what allergies are and how to act around those who do have allergies. And who better to start the conversation than a young adult who has grown up and has had the experience first hand!