By Guest Blogger Angela Fuller, Founder & President of Food Allergy Families of the Triad
Do you ever think about the qualities that make a good friend? Supportive, honest, there for you in a crisis and good listener, come to mind. Making new friends is exciting, and for a child with a disability, it can be especially impactful. With 1 in 13 children diagnosed with food allergies, it’s likely your child will be in a class, activity or summer camp with a food allergic child.
Here are 5 simple ways a child can be a friend to someone with food allergies:
Ask Questions: Encourage your child to ask what their friend is allergic to or speak to the child’s parent. Ask what you and your child can do to help keep the food allergic child safe and included. Your child’s friend might need help remembering to bring their epinephrine with them everywhere, reading labels or watching out for allergens on the playground. So that the friend doesn’t have to sit alone, you might consider sending a lunch that doesn’t contain any of the friend’s allergies. If you would like to include your child’s friend in a party or special event that involves food, ask for specific ideas on safe foods or the way food needs to be displayed or handled so there is no chance of cross contamination that could causing an allergic reaction.
Don’t Joke About Food Allergies: Food allergies are very serious and can be life threatening. When speaking to young children, phrases like, “If your friend eats anything with egg in it, he will get so sick he will have to get a shot and go to the hospital” are sufficient. When speaking with older children, you can explain that exposure to even a trace amount could cause a friend to vomit, their throat to close, to lose consciousness and if not treated promptly, it could be fatal. Encourage all children to refrain from joking about food allergies or the need to carry emergency medication, as this type of behavior can quickly lead to bullying.
Wash Your Hands After You Eat: This is by far the simplest way to be a good friend. Explain to your child that washing hands after eating will help eliminate the spread of allergens over surfaces their friend may come in contact with, like toys, crayons, tables, chairs or tablets. Also, be sure food is not on clothing. You don’t want a sweet hug shared between friends to cause a reaction!
Don’t Share Food: There are all kinds of wonderful things to share between friends, like smiles, stories, or toys, but food is not one of them. Kids with food allergies should only eat food that is provided by their parents or caregivers. All children should be discouraged from sharing food. Older children should also be reminded that kissing after eating allergenic food can lead to a life threatening reaction.
Know When to Get Help: Everyone hopes they never see their friend experience an allergic reaction or bullying, but preparation can lead to a more positive outcome. To be a good friend, children need to know when to get help. This conversation will also look very different depending on the age of the child. With young children, you can explain that their friend might say, “I think I may have eaten something different and I don’t feel good” or their friend might start to look very ill. If either occurs, the child should know to get a teacher right away. With older children, you can teach them how to recognize anaphylaxis, administer epinephrine, and call 911. Children of all ages should be encouraged to report bullying immediately. Of the food allergic children who reported bullying, 86% experience multiple episodes and 57% report being touched or harassed with the actual allergenic food.
Some children find it difficult to make friends because they feel different from their peers. Food allergic children may refrain from sharing that they have food allergies because they fear retaliation or bullying, especially when it’s necessary to restrict foods from the class. Thirty five percent of children 5 and older report experiencing bullying because of their allergies and for children in grades 6th-10th, the percentage increases to 50%. Keeping food allergies a secret could delay treatment and put the child at greater risk of a life threatening reaction. Talking to your child about how to be a good friend to someone with food allergies creates a more compassionate and accepting environment which allows for lasting friendships.
All children deserve to feel accepted. Encouraging children to be a good friend at a young age will serve them well throughout their life. Having a good friend starts with being a good friend.
To learn more about food allergies, visit www.foodallergyfamiliesofthetriad.org.