My 12-year-old daughter has severe peanut and tree nut allergies. We first discovered her allergies 10 years ago, after my father, who had just eaten a peanut butter cup, kissed her, causing her face to break out into hives. He felt horrible and we were scared.
Unlike back then, when we first learned about food allergies and how life-threatening they could be, there is much more awareness of food allergies today. There’s also some frustration over having to accommodate nut-free rules when you don’t have to. (Believe me, we know how hard it can be; we live with nut-free rules full time.)
Out of everything that we’ve learned and lived with over the last 10 years, these are the 10 things that my daughter with food allergies wants you to know. She hopes that understanding her position may help make being a member of a nut-free school or caring for a child with food allergies a little easier—and a whole lot less frustrating.
1. Having a food allergy is not a choice.
Unlike going vegan or adopting a Paleo diet, my daughter hasn’t chosen to have a food allergy. It’s a medical condition that cannot be changed. At least not yet. (Come on scientific research, I know you can do it!) She also isn’t exaggerating or “making it up” when she explains that her allergies can be life-threatening. If she could chose one way or another, she’d opt not to be one of 5.9 million kids with food allergies.
2. She wishes that she wasn’t “the allergy kid.”
Think about how much kids want to fit in when it comes to nearly anything, and you’ll understand why my daughter can sometimes feel embarrassed about having food allergies. And for some kids it’s even worse; according to FARE, Food Allergy Research & Education, about a third of kids with food allergies report that they have been bullied specifically because of their allergies. Thankfully, the kids in our community have been really great, but there have been times when adults have been the bullies. That sucks. (In other words, please, just be kind.)
3. There is always an EpiPen with her.
Two EpiPens, in fact. They go to school, to camp, to a friend’s house—everywhere and always. My daughter knows that the auto-injectors can save her life if she ever has a life-threatening anaphylaxis reaction, and also knows to call 911 immediately after an injection. Now that she’s old enough, she can self-administer the medication if she isn’t with us, at school, or around an adult who can do it for her. Though you should know that if she is visiting your house, you may have to take charge in an emergency.
It’s a real treat when she can enjoy ice cream!
5. It’s a major score to find safe desserts.
It’s a special treat when my daughter finds a peanut/nut-free bakery, an ice cream shop that serves soft serve on a dedicated line, or is able to order dessert at a restaurant. The rare occurrence makes her feel like she isn’t missing out all of the time. So if you ever see a kid slurping down a cone before dinner or (gasp) mid-morning, don’t judge; it could a kid with allergies whose parents thought that the rare indulgence would be something really special.
5. When in doubt, ask the child’s parent about do’s and don’ts.
We’ve all heard kids say, It’s okay to pack Nutella mom; I know one kid has a peanut allergy but it should be fine and the other kids bring it to school too. I would simply suggest you don’t rely solely on the kids in class or a playgroup to deliver the finer points about a friend’s allergies; always double check with a teacher or, better yet, the parents. Even the most well-meaning adults may not understand the nuances of keeping a kid safe who has food allergies unless they’ve had first-hand experiences. For example, simply avoiding offering peanuts may not be enough.
Every kid and every allergy is different: One child may be allowed to eat at an ice cream shop as long as they get a flavor without any nuts, while another may need to steer clear of treats in that shop completely due to risk of cross-contamination. Parents are your best and ultimate source for accurate information.
6. She’s not trying to ruin your life.
If your child’s school is nut-free and packing a PB&J-free lunch has you frustrated — I get it. I know so many kids who eat little more. Just know that it was a decision that was made to keep other kids safe, not to drive you crazy. No doubt you’d rather have the inconvenience of finding new lunch options than knowing you accidentally created a health problem for a young child.
At a school that is not nut-free, like my daughter’s, she feels more comfortable sitting at a nut-free table because it gives her 20 minutes to relax and eat without worrying about what people around her are eating. As I said above, she’d rather she didn’t have to make that choice. So just keep in mind that all she, and other allergic kids, want is to feel safe while enjoying their meal and socializing and having fun like any other kid.
7. Having food allergies is stressful for kids who already have a lot of stress in their lives.
Between school, homework, sports, family obligations and extracurricular activities, kids already have a lot on their plates. Managing food allergies on top of it all is one more huge thing that kids like my daughter have to handle in their day-to-day lives. If you’re teaching your kids empathy, point out that there is rarely a day that goes by that my daughter doesn’t have to think about her allergies, and how stressful that is for a kid.
8. She’s not being rude.
When you invite our family over for a meal and we grill you about what’s in your fabulous French toast, your amazing pasta dish, or those to-die-for brownies, it’s only because we have to. I hate doing it, but that’s my only choice. So if my daughter doesn’t eat what you’re offering or we prefer to bring our own options (which will always be enough for everyone) please don’t take it personally. It’s not a matter of being picky or difficult or even an ungracious guest, it’s about being safe.
9. Birthday parties are hard for her.
While most kids just get excited about attending a birthday party, where the biggest concerns are what to wear and which gift to choose, my daughter has other things on her mind. Like whether she’ll be able to attend at all. Hosts who have ice cream sundae party with toppings galore, or serving a cake with nuts — sadly, my daughter won’t be able to join you. And if she can attend, she’ll probably skip the cake, even if it isn’t covered in peanuts. That said, please don’t feel that you have to change your concept or menu to accommodate her; she, like other kids with food allergies, always comes prepared with her own treat so she won’t interrupt the festivities or draw more attention to herself. And it’s okay—she’s used to it.
10. She knows that her food allergies are her responsibility.
My daughter doesn’t want to live in a bubble and is old enough to understand that she has to take responsibility for her allergies. She doesn’t expect to be accommodated, but when someone shows kindness and understanding or, even better, makes sure to include her despite any inconvenience it may cause –well, it means the world to her. And to me too. Those of you who go out of your way for her, even a little? Just know that we see it, we remember it, and we are grateful more than you can imagine.