It can feel like your entire world has been turned upside down when your child is newly diagnosed with a food allergy or other dietary restriction. There’s so many new things you’ll have to account for in your everyday life, and it’s stressful just thinking about it.
I want to remind you of something, in fact, no one may have told you this: YOU are your child’s sword and shield.
Think about babies. We do everything we can to protect them. As adults, we understand how incredibly vulnerable they are. Being the parent to a free-from child, it’s the same thing, even when they’re not babies anymore. There are things you’ll need to do for your toddler that you may not have considered before (or maybe didn’t need to do for your older children). These needs will continue to crop up until they’re adults.
What It Looks Like to Be a Shield
Shielding your child means protecting them from those who seek to do them harm. Now, as parents, we already do this. Yet, how many have to think about food as a form of harm? Not all parents, but you do, and that’s OK.
For example, we encourage people to engage in fully informed consent, especially if the child is a complex case. We’ve had SO many people reach out to thank us because we’ve given them the courage to say no to pushy doctors who made them uncomfortable. That is a prime example of being a shield.
Another way is to look out for the dangers your child doesn’t see yet. This is especially true if they have a contact allergy. It’s making sure play spaces are clean and other kids aren’t eating your child’s allergens around them.
A piece of the puzzle that’s often overlooked is bullying. Boy, oh boy, do we have to pull out our shields for that. This article on food allergy bullying goes into greater detail. Know that your voice matters and you should absolutely bring it up with teachers and administrators when your child is being bullied due to their food allergies.
I like to think of it as this sometimes: a restricted diet is akin to an invisible disability. We don’t make fun of people in wheel chairs or sabotage their mobility devices. Therefore, to verbally harass or even throw allergens at someone with food allergies is beyond unacceptable. Quite frankly, throwing known allergens at a child is a form of assault as far as I’m concerned.
But I Don’t Like Confrontation
I don’t either, but I had to get over that real fast. You already know that raising kids is a tough job and requires you to do things you may not be comfortable with. Yet, that’s the job and the sacrifice that we make as parents.
Confronting others who are behaving maliciously towards your child WILL be uncomfortable but WILL also be necessary.
Case and point: the grandparents who think a little won’t hurt.
We get so many messages about this, and people aren’t sure what to say. I like to reframe it. If the grandparent gave your child rat poison would you still be timid or not sure what to say? Because it’s no different. Known allergens ARE a poison to your child and, in some cases, can cause life-threatening reactions.
If a stranger did the same thing the offending family member did, would it be easier to stand up for your child? Absolutely. The thing is, you have to emotionally step away from the situation and stick to the basics.
It’s wrong. Your child can’t stand up for themselves. YOU are the sword and shield. You have a duty to protect.
What does confrontation with family look like? Well, for starters, don’t go guns blazing (unless you know that’s the only way to get their attention). Make it clear what the boundaries are and let them know they’ve crossed them. Also let them know that trust has been broken and they won’t be serving your child food without you present (if at all).
It’s important to remember this: NO ONE is entitled to spend time with your child. NO ONE is allowed to maliciously do harm. Period, hard stop.
What About People Who Mean Well?
This is where food free events are your new best friend. Let’s face it. Some people will honestly never understand the restrictions, yet, they will really try to be helpful.
In those cases, I encourage people to do a few things. First, if someone insists on getting something (food) for your child, send them a picture of a packaged item that’s safe. Be sure to include the ingredient panel so they can confirm the product, and ask them to send you a picture to be sure they found the right thing.
Next, be the host. In some cases, this is the easiest way to avoid problems. Let people know there’s no need to bring anything, or give them the easy assignment like drinks. Water even. Make it super easy to let them feel like they’ve contributed without allergens being an issue.
Additionally, make food-free events a regular thing in your life. Have people over for a movie night, game night, LEGO building event, or even ride bikes together. The key to making these events successful is to have drinks on hand and time it between meals, when people are least likely to be hungry.
Being A Shield When It Comes to Medical Decisions
I hear a lot from parents the medical regrets that they have looking back. Some tell me, I just didn’t know. I totally get that and always remind them that we do our best with the info we have.
Others, however, tell me about the pressure and essentially the bullying they experienced from medical professionals. For them especially, I have so much sympathy.
Here’s the thing, we’ve all been conditioned to accept that letters after someone’s name gives them a bunch of authority. I’m not saying they haven’t earned it. And I’m not saying everyone abuses it.
Here’s what I am saying: If a medical professional is belittling you, pressuring you, pushing things on to you and/or your child that you’re not OK with, walk away. That’s your right. There’s no law that says you can’t find a new doctor.
I think we get into these situations where we feel a lot internal pressure, especially if you’re a people pleaser. You don’t want to upset the authority figure. You want to do what it is in the moment because they’re telling you all these things…
There’s nothing wrong with thanking them for the info and scheduling a follow-up appointment IF you’re comfortable doing that.
I share this as a reminder. Find a doctor and/or medical team that respects you and your wishes. I’ve personally had to walk away from so many specialists that have a God complex and think they can cure me overnight. Ugh. I have had specialists insist I take medication that has ingredients I’m CLEARLY allergic to, only to nearly die upon taking the first dose.
This is me, and adult, who can articulate. Remember, some of you are managing little kids who can’t express a lot of things to you, and they’re barely helpful with the diagnosis, if at all (especially true for complex cases).
What It Looks Like to Be a Sword
I should say this up front: you’re the nice, fun, cartoon sword. Not the King Arthur type of sword.
Being a sword in this sense is all about advocacy and helping your child feel loved, accepted, and well adjusted. In our home, it meant throwing parties so we could be the host and our kids would feel completely normal because everything was safe for them.
Something else I did as a sword for my kids: made sure they knew how awesome their free-from life was. Food was cool, and fun, and cute. Cakes were gigantic and all sorts of themes (including a dragon cake, train station, and once, a whole village that took up half the living room). I never wanted them to see their diagnosis as a burden or limitation.
In your home, it might look like going out of your way to schedule food-free events with other kids so your child doesn’t always have to bring safe food and feel like the odd one out. Being a sword is going to be different at every age/stage of growing up as well.
Honestly, when you have a toddler, you’re more on shield mode since kids aren’t really aware of what’s going on. Once they’re at play-date and school ages, that’s when you have to really kick into advocacy mode. It’s making sure the 504 plan is solid and being adhered to. It’s also making sure that there’s a safe snack available for your kid in moments when the teacher isn’t able to tell you in advance.
Additionally, being a sword is being prepared. I shared in this Allergy Seminar the importance of being prepared for the primary caregiver to be unavailable for your child. In fact, a RAISE Member recently went through this and reached out to thank us for helping them be prepared for such a situation.
They told me that because they followed our advice, when mom was unable to care for the kids for over a month, everything was OK. There was safe food on hand and she was able to rest and recover. Dad felt at peace because he didn’t have to worry about a lot of things he normally doesn’t take the lead on, and instead could focus on keeping the whole house running smoothly.
Being prepared is one of the best gifts we can give our children who live with a restricted diet.
For The Most Part, It All Boils Down To Communication
In case you didn’t notice, the underlying theme here is communication. We as parents have to communicate on behalf of our free-from children to make sure the world is a safe for place for them.
It starts with communicating with our friends and family, and as they get older, teachers and administrators. We’ll also interact with coaches and other parents too.
As your child grows up, make sure you’re teaching them this skill as well. The ultimate goal is independence and being able to advocate for themselves is something they’ll need to do for the rest of their lives.
If you need further resources, here are some great places to get started:
- Allergy Seminar: Communicating With Teachers & Caregivers
- Allergy Seminar: The Mental Health Aspects Parents Face
- Navigating Class Parties When Your Child Has Food Allergies
- Tips For Holiday Gatherings When Living With Food Allergies