As a parent, it is natural to want to shield and protect you child but teaching children about their food allergies from a young age is essential to help them understand and manage their condition effectively.
Talking to children about their food allergies will help them see it as a normal part of life and not something to be anxious or embarrassed about. It is important to find a balance between keeping them safe and allowing them to live a fun and fulfilling life.
Make food allergies part of everyday conversation
One of the biggest pieces of advice is to make allergies part of every day conversation so your children don’t feel worried or shy talking about them. Get them involved in shopping, cooking or eating out and explain why you are choosing something or making something in a certain way. As they get older, you can help them read labels or even support them to order their own food.
Food allergies affect all aspects of a family’s life so don’t be afraid to talk about how you manage them or tackle any challenges you face. This openness makes it easier for your child to ask questions or raise any issues or emotions they may be dealing with.
Use explanations and language they can understand
With young children, you may say they can’t have a certain food because it would make them poorly or make their tummy hurt. As they get older, you can talk about symptoms in more detail and ask them to explain, in their own words, what a reaction feels like. Use our free colouring sheet to help with this.
It is also important from a young age to make a distinction between safe and non safe foods. So instead of saying ‘your milk’ call it by its name ‘oat milk’ or ‘soy milk’ so they can understand the difference. You may set up a labelling or storage system at home to make it easier.
Explain what their allergens look like and where they might hide
Many children have no idea what a nut or sesame seed actually looks like! Show them pictures, point them out in the supermarket and also talk about common foods you might find them in. There is always a fear of the unknown so empowering them with this knowledge can help take some of the worry away.
Make sure they understand that they must never share food or eat anything that has not been given to them by a trusted adult and talk about why we always have to check ingredients.
Get them involved
It is important to give your child some ownership over their allergies and involve them in the everyday management. This can be letting them choose a medic alert band, stickers or medication bag.
Get them cooking and show them food can be fun not scary. Help them make safe treats for parties or to share with their friends. We have some simple allergy friendly recipes to get you started.
Use role play to teach children about food allergies
For young children, it’s great to use a toy kitchen, including some of their allergens like milk or egg, and when they are making meals explain that you can’t have something or how you could make it instead.
It’s also good practice, as they grow older, to role play different situations. What would they say if their friend offered them food or if they didn’t feel safe with something at school? What steps would they take if they had an allergic reaction?
Read books and watch programmes together
Books and TV are always a great way to educate children and open up the conversation around difficult topics. Our non-fiction children’s book You, Me And Food Allergies has been written to do just that and is backed by Allergy UK.
Help them advocate for their allergies
As children get older, they can take more responsibility for their allergies. Once they go to school, they need to be able explain to others what they need to avoid and understand when they have to say no to any food or activity that is offered. It is also essential that they know what a reaction may feel like, when to tell an adult and what the treatment will be.
If someone asks about your child’s allergies, encourage your child to respond so they start to feel more confident talking about them. Or create a chef card together to easily explain.
Teach them how to use and adrenaline injector
If your child has been prescribed an adrenaline auto-injector, then use a practice one to show them how it is used. Try to minimise any fear by explaining exactly what it does, letting them have a go with a practice pen, which does not have a needle in, and helping them understand when and why you may need to use it. You see my 5 year old demonstrating how to use one here!
Set up simple rules to follow
Children like rules and boundaries. It can help them feel safer and also make things easier for them to remember. Here are a few simple rules to teach your children.
- Never share food
- Always take your medication with you
- Don’t eat something unless we can read the ingredients
- Wash/wipe your hands before eating
Use positive language
Your child’s food allergies are part of who they are, but they do not define them. It is easy for families, or other people, to slip into using negative language around them. Here are a few ways to turn that around.
‘Allergy sufferer’ – has/deals with food allergies
‘Sorry, I can’t have that’ – Thankyou but I can’t have that.
‘I know it’s a pain but I need to check the ingredients’ – It’s important I check the ingredients
‘I can’t do that because of my allergies’ – how can I do that with my allergies?
It’s so unfair that my child has food allergies – Dealing with food allergies is a challenge
It is important to acknowledge your child’s feelings and worries about their food allergies and validate them. However, there is always a different way to do things or another way to look at it. Read the emotions page in our book to help open up the conversation.
You might also like: Meet other children with food allergies