Experts say parents need to be engaged and prepared. They also need to teach their children how to deal with food allergy attacks on their own.
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Back-to-school season is a notoriously stressful time for parents.
And for parents of children with food allergies, the stress goes beyond getting the right supplies and resetting bedtime routines.
Jennifer Ware’s 7-year-old son Jacob has severe allergies to multiple common allergens such as dairy, eggs, and shellfish.
After two allergic reactions happened at home, Ware was anxious about sending the young boy to school.
“I was terrified when he went to school because I prepared all of his food for him. He was always with me, you know, [and] if he had a party or a hangout with friends I would always bring food. So, I started to read a lot of blogs from allergy moms and that’s kind of where I got all my tips of the trade I guess,” she told Healthline.
Some safety tips
Ware shared some of her strategies for keeping her son safe.
On the first day of school, Jacob wears a T-shirt that lists his allergies.
She labels his food containers and lunch box with a custom “Allergy Alert” sticker.
Jacob wears an allergy indicator bracelet.
However, Ware was quick to note that these measures aren’t enough.
“I make sure I go to the school in person,” she said. “I typically speak to the nurse. I always go the Meet the Teacher night. I meet his teacher and I make sure that I talk to her personally and tell them what his allergens are, the signs he’s exhibited in the past, [and] what to look for.”
According to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist in New York City and spokesperson for the Allergy & Asthma Network, Ware’s strategies are spot on.
“Make sure everyone who comes in contact with the child is aware — from teachers to coaches to nurses to principals,” Parikh told Healthline. “Make sure all forms are filled out and you have plenty of your emergency meds, such as epinephrine, auto-injectors, and quick-relief inhalers.”
Ware understands some parents are hesitant to get involved, but she urged parents to resist that feeling.
“Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child,” she said. “I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to, they’re kind of like, well, is it necessary? But it truly does give you the peace of mind and I don’t think there’s too much that you can do. […] Just remember you’re doing it for your child’s safety and so they can feel safe at school.”
Teaching children to take care of themselves
Dr. B.J. Lanser, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health based in Colorado, told Healthline it’s important for children with allergies “to learn to be responsible on their own.”
He said some parents feel if you just remove all allergens then their child will always be safe, but “that’s a false sense of security” because “it doesn’t provide real-world security.”
“We’re never going to be able to rid the world of every allergen every child has. It’s impossible,” Lanser said.
As children age, Lanser suggests increasing their education and responsibility around allergen care.
Teaching them what to do is an important factor in reducing their anxiety. Families can also work with allergists to reduce anxiety through “exposure challenges.”
“I’ve got my tray and we usually do it with one of our behavioral health providers and they’ve got their tray and the child has theirs,” Lanser said. “Then we slowly kind of start to talk about and introduce different foods. Sometimes that’s milk and ‘I’ve got a carton of milk here and you’re allergic to milk but you know, we can do this safely.’”
He reiterates to the child that they should only eat what’s on their tray and never share food.
He also prepares them for possible reactions to exposure, stating that the other important piece of keeping a child safe is teaching them what to do.
Parikh expressed the same sentiments.
“Being prepared reduces stress — this includes empowering your child to recognize signs and symptoms and when to ask for help,” Parikh said. “Always prepare your own lunch and instruct your child not to eat any unknown items. Also make sure emergency meds are with them and all appropriate caretakers are aware.”
Knowing her child understands what to do in an emergency has given Ware peace of mind.
“Jacob and I go through an action plan together,” she said. “I talk to him about his allergies all the time.”
She said that Jacob understands when a reaction calls for Benadryl, when he needs an inhaler, or when he needs an auto-injector.
The mistake some parents make
Lanser explained that some well-intentioned parents have a hard time adjusting to back-to-school and end up forgoing it altogether.
“Unfortunately, what we do see sometimes is folks who, because of just not being willing to do the work, not being comfortable, or being afraid, say, ‘Oh we’re going to homeschool because of their allergies then.’”
He doesn’t advocate this approach, though.
“Unless homeschooling for other reasons is the right thing for the child, we want to see that kid in school having those normal, social interactions and be a part of the community,” he said.
For Lanser, the way to truly keeping your child safe is giving them the tools to make appropriate decisions. His safety rules are quite straightforward.
“You never eat if you don’t have your epinephrine. You never eat if you don’t know what’s in it. Learn how to treat a reaction, learn how to recognize what’s a reaction,” he said.