When your child develops a peanut allergy, the world instantly becomes a more dangerous place. One of the most difficult aspects of raising a child with a potentially lethal allergy is helping them develop a sense of joy and confidence. Growing up with a peanut allergy means knowing food can kill you, which in turn means growing up under constant stress. Studies have shown that children with peanut allergies live with high levels of fear and anxiety. It’s important to find ways for your child to enjoy the world anyway.
How do you help your child live a “normal” life when there is so much they have to avoid or be vigilant about? Social situations for children with peanut allergy are difficult because events almost always include food. Peanut allergies can destroy the carefree joy of childhood because of the required constant monitoring for potential dangers. As a parent, you understand well just how harmful the world is for your child, yet it’s so important to help them enjoy life and learn to function in the world and in society as well.
One thing a child with a peanut allergy often faces is exclusion. As a parent, I have learned that children can be cruel. As a school psychologist, I have witnessed and intervened when children have called a student with a peanut allergy “the peanut kid,” or said such hurtful things like, “get out of my way or I’ll throw a peanut at you and you’ll die.” Yes, these are true instances and they aimed to hurt the child just because he had a peanut allergy.
Other children may find a food allergy strange, but they will generally accept it and continue on with their friendship. You may find it helpful to donate books to your child’s classroom that talk about food allergies and the dangers, such as “Peter Can’t Eat Peanuts.”
While other children may handle your child’s peanut allergy well, their parents may not. Adults have a tendency to shy away from children with such severe allergies, and this can pose problems and pain for your child in the form of being left out of activities, not invited to parties, not chosen to work on projects.
On one hand, it’s not hard to see why people don’t want to deal with the liability. How would it feel to know you were responsible for killing, or almost killing, a child because you offered them the wrong treat? If this were not your child, but a friend’s child who suffered from a peanut allergy, can you honestly say you would volunteer for the responsibility of caring for them? (Yes, we say, because it’s hard to be objective in our positions – but really, really try to think about it.) Yet understanding a person’s inherent reluctance to be involved with a child with a peanut allergy doesn’t salve the wounded feelings of a child when they are the only one in the class not invited to a birthday party.
As the parent of a child with a potentially fatal peanut allergy, you may find that you have to be more involved and more willing to go the extra mile than other parents. Talk to the parents of your child’s friends one on one, or arrange at the beginning of the school year to meet the parents of your child’s classmates, through the teacher. Explain your child’s allergy, then volunteer your services for things like bringing treats to class or helping with birthday parties.
You should be gentle and make sure the other parents know that you understand their potential worries about including your child in activities. Explain that you are concerned about your child being hurt by being excluded, and your main concern is that he or she gets to enjoy being as normal as possible. Show a positive attitude, and it will come through loud and clear that you’re willing to work with everyone involved. Take the pressure off other parents in order for your son or daughter to have a more normal life, and make peanut-free snacks to give to your child’s teacher so that birthday parties at school can be enjoyable for your child.
When you do find people who want to help your child with a peanut allergy to be included, they might not be sure what to do, what they can do, or how they should react to an emergency. Informed people who know how to handle a situation in the event of an allergic reaction are typically more relaxed and confident about being around a person with special needs (yes, peanut allergy is a special need. Don’t let teachers/administrators tell you otherwise.) Teach everyone with whom your child has contact how to use an Epi-pen, and make up laminated emergency cards with instructions and contacts to distribute to people who will be around your child regularly.
Some parents still won’t get it, or will be too uncomfortable to be involved. That’s certainly their right, and it’s good to explain such situations frankly to your child. They have to understand that people aren’t always going to change to accommodate their peanut allergies. They have to learn to maneuver through the world and still get joy out of it. It’s kind of like learning to lose gracefully.
An important thing to remember is that your child is going to have to learn to have these discussions about their peanut allergies with other people themselves. You’re not always going to be able to manage his or her social situations, especially as he or she grows. If you have a toddler or a youngster, give your day care provider a labeled photo of your child and make sure it is prominently displayed for all to see.
Does your child know how to respond to people who offer treats and may cajole or pressure them into accepting? Even when a child knows their safety is at stake, it’s hard to get past that desire to be liked and approved of. Your child needs to know how to talk to other people, even grownups, about their situation and explain how the other person can help them. Prepare your child by role playing and acting out situations they may face and attitudes they may have to deal with. “Peter Can’t Eat Peanuts” is an excellent tool for toddlers who are just beginning to cope with the differences in their lives caused by their peanut allergy.
In some ways, coping socially when you suffer from a peanut allergy is getting easier. Peanut allergy has gotten a lot of media attention lately, from dramatic stories such as the girl who died after kissing her boyfriend because he’d eaten a peanut-butter sandwich. Medical studies are providing other news stories, showing the dramatic rise of peanut allergies appearing in children. The publicity is helping alert the general population to the seriousness of this allergy, and perhaps instructing well-meaning people on how even tiny bits of peanut in the cookies they baked will hurt your child.
One final note: Don’t get so caught up in the social aspect of coping with peanut allergies that you miss the simple things that can bring your child joy. It’s especially important that we emphasize that food is not the enemy, so adventures in food are a perfect bonding opportunity – one that allows for “quiet time,” during which you can actually reach your child in these hectic times. There are a great many restaurants your child will never be able to eat at because of his or her peanut allergies. So, become a great cook. Take classes if reading a cookbook isn’t enough to help you master the kitchen. This way you can safely introduce your child to cuisine that might be deadly in a restaurant, such as Chinese food which is so often cooked in peanut oil.
While you’re at it, teach your child to cook as well. Not only will you be providing a source of fun and adventure, you’ll be arming him or her to be able to keep their world as peanut-free as possible.
Nadine O’Reilly, M.A. is a doctoral-level school psychologist and Coordinator of Special Services in northern New Jersey. She creates 100’s of accommodation plans for disabled children each year. Nadine is the author of “Peter Can’t Eat Peanuts” and the Empowered Toddler series of books. Nadine’s son, Brendan, has a potentially fatal peanut allergy, and is asthmatic.