Emotional Aspects of Food Allergies and Extended Family

Food allergies comprise much more than just a physical component. The emotional aspects of food allergies continue to rear up with each stage of development in a child’s life. Dealing with extended family members who may not “get it” can create strained relationships. With those family members who do understand, it’s so wonderful to have another advocate on your side! This month, my friend, Jenny Kales, of The Nut-Free Mom Blog and I are discussing our experience with our extended family and food allergies.

Nicole: When my son, Morgan, was diagnosed with food allergies at 18 months old (after having two severe reactions – one to touching peanuts, and one to his MMR shot) I was convinced that no one but me could take care of him! Yet, I quickly learned that my husband needed all the information about Morgan’s food allergies and how to operate the EpiPen. I also learned that our extended families needed to understand the change in food habits that would be required for Morgan to be able to attend family gatherings. My father immediately said that I was overdramatizing my son’s allergies and that I’d make him into an anxiety-ridden child! He began sending me research reports about how it would be good for Morgan to be around cats and dogs (two more of his severe allergens). My father had suffered from asthma as a child, and his own mother had babied him into his adult years. I began to understand where his comments were sourced, yet I didn’t give up on the need for my son to NOT ever be around his food allergens or pets. I continued to try to educate my father about food allergies and what would be necessary for him to do to be around Morgan.

Jenny: One thing I’ve found, both in my own experience, and from the experiences that people share with me, is that some extended family members have the philosophy that  kids can somehow “tough out” a food allergy or that a small amount of a food allergen helps cure the allergy.  You are going to find all sorts of opinions that conflict with what you need to keep your child protected.  I remember one Thanksgiving (at my in-laws) where one of the kids at the table wouldn’t eat the dinner, but wanted a peanut butter granola bar instead. Everyone asked me if that was “OK.” The child in question was sitting right next to my daughter and while I don’t believe that every food allergy risk can be eradicated in life, I believed that my daughter had a right to a comfortable Thanksgiving meal and I said “no, that’s not a good idea.” That was just one incident where I was on the spot and felt that others were humoring me;  they didn’t really believe that food can be a threat to a child.  Over the years, much of this has improved but I still feel that I’m being humored at times, especially when it comes to restaurants or when I don’t allow my daughter to eat baked goods from a bakery. There will always be family members who think you’re limiting your kids unnecessarily.  I’d love it if my daughter could have the freedom to eat whatever she wants but the reality is that she can’t or her health is at risk. You need to develop a thick skin and also a sense of what your bottom line is, i.e. making good choices for your child’s health.

Nicole: Oh those holiday meals! I can remember one Christmas when Morgan was not yet 5 years old and my husband’s entire family had a get together. It was three families, plus my mother-in-law, which totaled 6 kids and 7 adults. I had asked family members to please not bring any of his food allergens to the Christmas Eve dinner, (which at the time were peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish.) The dinner was not at our house. My mother-in-law just couldn’t live without her crab puffs on Christmas Eve, so she said she made them with artificial crab meat! I was very hurt, and couldn’t understand why she wasn’t able to forego her crab puffs just that year. I was still concerned about cross contamination in the manufacturing process, even if it was artificial crab meat! Then a neighbor showed up with nut covered brownies for everyone to share, and while I requested for my husband to deal with this, they still got eaten in our presence. We had prepared Morgan’s food separately, yet we still worried about all the food allergens in the house, and I didn’t feel comfortable causing a scene, packing up and leaving for home. It wasn’t a pleasant Christmas Eve experience for me. From that year on we have always had Christmas dinner at our house where we can monitor and prepare all the foods. It’s a small price to pay for peace of mind. The good news is that now, some 10+ years later, my in-laws are very concerned about food allergies and Morgan’s safety. At my nephew’s high school graduation party last May, I received a phone call from my brother-in-law ensuring that what he was preparing was not going to cause any issues. He knew that Morgan would be bringing his own food, but he wanted to ensure Morgan’s safety to the utmost! Nothing like education and awareness…and patience on our part!!

How do you deal with the preparation of holiday meals? What about location of the festivities?

Jenny: I like to be able to cook for the holiday meals as much as possible and by now, everyone understands this and welcomes it because fortunately, they like my cooking! J When we do eat at someone else’s home, I have a hand in the ingredients and cooking as well. I always bring dessert, too. I have to say I have a very short list of people that I think truly understand how to cook for my daughter. As the years have progressed, I do think that people in my family have gotten used to dealing with food allergies at holiday meals. However, since we are so careful and we have not had a lot of repeat reactions in recent years, sometimes others might think that the risk is somehow lower. They don’t realize how much effort goes into preventing a reaction. When it comes to holiday parties that are not hosted by close family members, all bets are off. We usually just bring something to the party that we know my daughter can eat and sometimes she might eat before or after. It’s really important to keep reiterating to extended family members (or friends) that we don’t think you have an “unclean” kitchen or are deliberately trying to harm anyone.  It’s truly difficult to explain cross contact to people. Another thing is that food is extremely tied to emotion and tradition, and this especially true at the holidays. So I try to understand that not everyone will want to or be able to provide a complete menu that is OK for my daughter’s allergies. We will work around it as best we can because we also try to emphasize that family traditions are not only about food, but about spending time together and other non-food activities. However, if we’re not sure about a food, my daughter doesn’t eat it. That rule stays firm wherever we go.

Nicole: It sounds like you have more comfort with others cooking for your daughter than we have for others to prepare foods for our son. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all! I think that’s probably a learned thing for your daughter. Morgan is really uncomfortable with anyone cooking for him in our extended family – and I know he learned that from my husband and me. He’s especially concerned with any foods that he might be allergic to being served because of the chance of a spoon or spatula being used in one of his safe foods. He’s grown accustomed to showing up places with a cooler full of safe foods for himself. There’s several different ways to deal with a child’s food allergies in family gatherings. The best way is what brings safety and security for your child!

Jenny: I am actually really cautious about letting others cook for my daughter and I certainly want everyone reading this to be cautious as well. It’s so important. Let me clarify—when I say a short list of people who we trust, I mean maybe two people. And even for those people, we go over all the steps, cleaning, cross-contact, etc.  Usually I’ve got a hand in at least some of the cooking, so I see what’s going on in the kitchen. These “trusted” people are also not likely to have the allergens in their homes in the first place. For example, my sister (my daughter’s aunt) never buys peanut butter any more.

When I say that we work around it, I mean that we will just bring our child her own meal if there is any risk involved in eating the food. Usually people are very accommodating to us, but ethnic traditions play a role. For instance, one side of my husband’s family is Greek. Nearly every Greek cookie or cake either contains tree nuts or came into contact with tree nuts; baklava is one example. It’s nearly impossible to eliminate these desserts off of a celebration or holiday menu, because of the strong cultural ties. Sometimes we might go to an event but bring Alex a separate meal or side dishes, etc.  You can’t be shy about refusing potentially unsafe foods since avoidance is our best weapon against reactions.  We’ve probably offended some good cooks along the way without meaning to. Certain cultures equate food with love and that is especially true for Mediterranean cultures!

Nicole: Thanks Jenny for sharing your experience with extended families and food allergies. There’s many ways to enjoy the holidays – and enjoyment is the key!

 

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