If your child is one of the growing number of people with food allergies, talking to her school is the first stepto keeping her safe. Lisa Ellis explores that in part one of this series, A Parent's Guide to Allergies: Talking to The School.
The next measure is to discuss the allergy with your child, so she can understand her circumstances and know what to expect at school.
It’s important to realize that the impact of food allergies can go beyond the physical symptoms. Kids who have food allergies grapple with social ramifications at school. They may feel isolated from their peers when they have to eat at a separate table, pass on a group snack, or be singled out in some other way.
“It’s also difficult at times for the child to answer the many questions that other children ask …" such as why they can’t eat certain foods and what will happen if they do, says Sherry W. Langston, APRN, PNP-BC. “Children become frustrated and really may not know the answers themselves, thus making it harder for them to relay the answers to their schoolmates." [sic]
She also points out that as kids reach middle school, “the realization of death being associated with an allergic reaction is anxiety-provoking and a difficult reality to accept. The best way to address these challenges is to help the children feel secure about who they are and about the fact that the food allergies don’t define them. This can help decrease anxiety and stress in social situations."
Langston says that, in her case, she makes sure her children always carry their EpiPens, Benadryl, and steroids in their emergency medications. Their school nurse keeps epinephrine in her office and in a locked cabinet in the lunchroom. Also, each child has an Emergency Action Plan, which was completed by their allergist.
“If they go on a field trip, I attend or I communicate with their teacher to make sure that they bring their emergency kit with them and that there is someone to administer the epinephrine if needed," Langston says.
“When there are activities at school or parties, I either volunteer to be a parent at the party (that way I can choose what my son eats) or I send in similar items that are safe for him. For example, when they make gingerbread houses at Christmas, I send in ‘safe’ candies that he can use to decorate his house that are similar to the ones the other children are using."
Educating the school about food allergies is only one part of the equation. Langston says that it’s just as important to educate your child about her own allergies so she can take an active role in keeping herself safe.
“Make children [are] aware of their allergies, but not scared of them," she says. “The explanation will change as the child grows and matures. Many parents choose to tell children that eating a certain food will ‘make them sick’ or tell them that, if they eat eggs, they will ‘have to go to the doctor.’ The child, over time, should be taught about the signs and symptoms of allergic reactions, such as tingling of the lips or tongue, feeling strange, etc."
Each child will handle her situation differently, so she points out that the personality of the child needs to be taken into account when discussing this issue. “Teaching the [children] to be proactive and comfortable dealing with food is essential to keeping them protected. They should also be taught never to go anywhere without their emergency medications," she says.
Train your child on how to use an EpiPen properly. There is no “right" age for this; rather, it’s something every family needs to determine on its own depending on the maturity and willingness of the child. Many parents report exposing their children to the steps by, or before, they start kindergarten. In this way, even if they can’t administer the medication themselves, they would know what to expect in an emergency and wouldn’t be as scared.
Some parents also have their children practice using an expired EpiPen — or a trainer, which is a device made for practicing that doesn’t have the needle and medicine inside — on an orange or other soft piece of fruit. This allows them to get used to gripping the injecting device in their fist and plunging it in, then holding it for a count of 10 before rubbing the area. Your doctor can help show you and your child exactly how to use an EpiPen.
With proper planning and education, you can help make school a safe and healthy place for your child.
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Accessed webpage Nov. 5, 2014. FARE.
Sherry W. Langston, APRN, PNP-BC, New Orleans, La. Email interview, Nov. 3, 2014.