Navigating life as a parent or a child with food allergies can be frightening. Transitions into pre-K, school age and beyond can be especially challenging times for families. However, as we explored through the story of Kristin Osbourne and her family, there are actions families can take to stay safe and make food allergies part of life but not define who they are.
Now we’re diving into practical tips and advice from Director of Behavioral Health at Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT) Emery Brown. Based in New Jersey, Brown enthusiastically shares her stories and experiences of living as a young adult with food allergies. She has a deep understanding of how to stay safe, healthy and happy with whatever comes her way. Brown holds a Bachelor of Science in public health with a concentration in health communication from The College of New Jersey and a Master of Arts in school psychology from Rowan University. She is finishing her degree as a school psychologist and serves as a mental health professional.
NPB: What’s the most important transition for a food allergy parent and how can they make the adjustment easier for themselves and their child?
EB: College is the most important transition that a food allergy parent will make because a college student is an adult and you can’t wiggle around that. You might not feel like your kids are adults because they’re still asking for money or a home cooked meal, but they are an adult.
At this point, you want to feel that you have truly taught your child how to read ingredients, use epinephrine, be safe if they’re going out to a bar or a restaurant, and other situations. Guidance refresh for freshmen specifically is really important because there are going to be realities when you’re transitioning from high school to college that some kids with food allergies might not want to face.
For instance, it’s really critical when searching for college to make sure that the place you’re choosing has a dining hall that’s going to fit the needs of your child. When I was searching for colleges, this is something that I completely ignored. I was in that rebellious phase and I told my parents I was absolutely not looking at any of the dining halls. I picked the college that I liked and that was that.
But in the spring before I graduated senior year, my mom dragged me out—in the very nicest way you can imagine—and she said, “You’re going to see this dining hall. We cannot send you without knowing you’ll have safe options.” And when we toured the dining hall with the nutritionist, she said they couldn’t accommodate my allergies and didn’t feel like I’d be able to safely eat anything in the dining hall. That’s a pretty big situation. It’s important that when you’re in college you’re able to participate in that social scene of food, even if you can’t eat all the same things that somebody else is eating.
When I found out that the dining situation actually wasn’t going to be safe for me, it was super devastating and I had to pick another college. But I did, and we toured that dining hall. I ended up going to The College of New Jersey and every single food item was labeled. They had a separate gluten-free section that also had dairy-free treats, which was awesome for me. And it was the best experience that I could’ve chosen for myself. But I would’ve saved myself from a lot of disappointment with that first school if I had toured the dining hall.
As a parent, you might face pushback in that late high school, early college age because your child has craved that independence so much. I’ve been there. But a parent is still going to need to be engaged, encouraging these steps that their child might not want to take, like touring the dining hall, because they’re ready to go into that next step of independence.
NPB: What advice or tips do you have to help a parent overcome anxiety as they’re letting go of some of that control they’ve had to keep their child safe?
EB: Preparation. If you’ve prepared all along and you’ve intentionally raised your child to be their own manager, that should lessen the anxiety. But if the only time you’ve thought about your child managing their condition independently is when they’re 17 or 18 years old and getting ready to leave, that’s going to hit you much harder. Going over details with your child and being supportive can lessen anxiety. For example, asking them, “Where will you keep your epinephrine in your apartment? Where will you keep your epinephrine in your dorm room?” You can travel to see the university nutritionist and tour dining halls with them and not let them do that portion alone. As a parent, you want to feel comfortable too.
You can sit down and have a honest conversation with your child, and say, “I’m experiencing some anxiety right now, because I’ve been doing this journey with you and now you’re doing it by yourself.” Kids love honest conversations with parents. If your child is experiencing any anxiety themselves, it’s important to remind them, “Hey, I’m going to be right here. I’m just one phone call away. I love you. I believe in you. You are able to be successful.” You can help them with those self-affirmations. Tell them what you believe about them and that’ll help them believe it about themselves. That leads right into resilience which is a hot topic right now.
NPB: How do you define resilience and what does that look like for food allergy families?
EB: Resilience is the outcome of successfully adapting to a difficult or challenging situation. For kids, I say resilience is simply the ability to bounce back from something. Everybody needs resilience: adults, children and people with and without food allergies. Specifically, people with food allergies need resilience because, right off the bat, they have a difficult challenge. They have a chronic condition and they’re going to need that mental flexibility. They’re going to need to bounce back and turn a negative thought into a positive one, for example, when their best friend brings something they’re allergic to for their birthday at school and they told them they wouldn’t.
In that situation, the child with the food allergy could think on one hand, “Well, she must hate me now. She did that on purpose.” Or they might think a resilient thought, which is, “Oh, it must have slipped their mind that I’m allergic. But they love me, I’m their best friend.”
We can teach our children this skill as a powerful empowerment strategy, especially when it comes to food allergies. A lot of kids get really afraid when their parents want to teach them how to use epinephrine. So if the child says, “I can’t do this,” you help them flip that thought and say, “Hey, you’re capable of doing many hard things.”
Resilient characteristics in adults and kids are having humor, optimism and positive mindset; knowing what you can and cannot control; practicing coping skills and self-care regularly; having a good support system—whether that be good friends, good families or coaches; being open-minded, accepting of change and asking for help—that’s a hard thing for a lot of people; owning up to your mistakes; forgiving people; managing your emotions; and understanding what you’re feeling as you feel it.
I tell people, “Think about which resilient traits apply to you and which don’t. And if you’re noticing that a lot don’t apply to you, those are things that you can easily fix.” Developing a positive mindset isn’t hard. It’s starting the day with thinking of one positive thing, right? Then if that turns into 20 negative things later, that’s okay, it’s just starting. Or forgiving people easily. If you’re somebody that finds it hard to forgive others, start with forgiving one person and see how that goes. And then you can forgive another.
Empowering and building resilience in our children goes beyond just teaching them how to read ingredient labels. It teaches them how to think. And positive thinking is key to how they’re going to understand their food allergies and how they’re going to understand their life
NPB: You’ve shared a lot of great information. Could you point us to some online resources as families consider building empowerment and resilience in their child with food allergies?
EB: Head over to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team at foodallergyawareness.org. We recently put together a resilience kit for children with food allergies that’s free and downloadable. The kit has an emotional check-in sheet, activities, self-affirmations, and a bunch of different things that you can do with your child or a child can do independently to help grow their resilience. And there are some resilience activities for adults on our webpage as well. So check on the Behavioral Health tab and you can download those items for free.
I think it’s important to remember that all parents can build these skills in themselves and in their child with food allergies. As someone that’s grown up with food allergies, I owe a lot of my personal empowerment and advocacy abilities to my parents and the fact that they were comfortable letting me explore and giving me the reins, even when it was difficult.