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The art of letting go: Three ways to help older children manage their food allergies

It’s that time. You knew the day would come, but now, the signs are indisputable. Your child is older now, and eager for more responsibility over their life.

When it’s time for your child to take those first steps toward independence, you know it, or at least have a sense that it’s coming. It may be the way your child balks at your reminders to be careful at a party, or the telltale “Mom!” when you offer to talk to a friend’s parents about their food allergy. However you come to realize that your child is ready for more responsibility, you realize that there needs to be a response on your part – one that both helps to keep your child safe and helps them move toward the increased independence they need to develop as they enter their tweens and teens, and have more mobility and time on their own with friends.

When your child was a toddler or in elementary school, you had a much higher degree of control over their whereabouts and food intake. But the shift toward independence leads to a lessening of that control. Nevertheless, as a parent, you still have a great deal of influence over the choices your older children make with respect to their food allergies. This, however, is a situation that calls for equal doses of diplomacy and direction.

Elaine Wardley

Here are three tips to help you do just that, courtesy of Elaine Wardley, co-leader of the Metro Vancouver Anaphylaxis Group (a support group), and a parent mentor with Food Allergy Canada. Her children were diagnosed with multiple food allergies as toddlers, they are now 13 and 11 years old.

Elaine describes some of the techniques she recommends to help children take steps toward autonomy:

1. Establish basic rules: Having some ground rules that you set early on are helpful once they’re more independent. For instance, my kids need to take their EpiPens® with them each time they go outside the confines of our yard. It’s just automatic now.

2. Teach them how to ask: Teach your kids what to ask at restaurants so they can do it themselves when the time comes. At age 11, my daughter came home from the outdoor swimming pool with friends. This pool has a concession stand, and she told me she had ordered french fries rather than a package of chips, which we’d previously checked and knew was safe. I was horrified until she told me that she had asked what kind of oil they use in their fryer (canola), she had read the ingredients (safe), and also asked whether they fried anything else with peanuts (one of her food allergies) in the same oil (no). So, she had been listening when I asked at restaurants! I was so pleased.

3. Choose your battles and breathe: Pick your battles carefully and don’t freak out at less than optimal choices. Realize that they are getting older and will make their own choices whether you like it or not. If the only safe option available at the school is Doritos® from the vending machine, then recognize that your kid will be eating those from time to time. Would I prefer my high-schooler snack on the sliced apples that I send with her? Of course, I would. But are Doritos a safe choice for her allergies? Yes, so I have to respect her independence and give her some leeway. Did I eat my fair share of junk food when I was in high school but then move back toward healthy foods as I got older? Um, maybe.

Thanks Elaine for sharing your tips!

We have many resources for your teen with food allergies, including a book written by youth, as well as a series of videos also made by youth. These resources provide information and real-life examples on living with food allergies while being a teenager.