Emotional Aspects of Food Allergies at School

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. A child in preschool might not notice receiving a ‘safe snack’ from their snack bin; while an elementary child will wilt at the teacher giving them something different to eat. A middle school child might rebel against food restrictions, while a high school age child may go further and tempt fate by eating one of their food allergens. My friend, Gina Clowes, of AllergyMoms, and I have had multiple conversations about the emotional piece of the food allergy diagnosis. Below is just a piece of what we’ve experienced with our children at school, and our hope that our children can overcome these sometimes difficult situations to better understand their food allergies, yet not be defined by them.

Nicole: When my son, Morgan, started preschool I was pretty emotional about him leaving me for even a few hours twice a week. I’m sure many parents, especially mothers, feel that way if their child hasn’t been in daycare.

Morgan had been at home where I could carefully control his environment and monitor his severe food allergies (peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, fish & shellfish), his eczema, asthma, and severe pet and environmental allergies. I was so upset when looking for a preschool (this was in 1999) that every private preschool that I interviewed in our city (Colorado Springs), wouldn’t admit our son. They either didn’t want the liability of a child with severe food allergies, or they said they weren’t willing to be trained on the EpiPen.

I never thought that I’d receive that response. I figured that if I trained the staff how to administer an EpiPen, and if they kept his allergens out of the classroom, he would be safe at school. I didn’t want to fight for my child to go to a school that didn’t want him to attend. Instead we found a public preschool that provided everything we wanted, and it was a wonderful experience for him and for me. Morgan was always fine to have his own snack that was different from the others in the classroom. He knew it was a safe snack, and he felt included.

I had to mature emotionally in order to advocate for my child – asking for just what he needed and not more.

Gina: The first year my son attended preschool, I did things the way many allergy moms had done before me. I explained my son’s allergies and trained the staff on avoiding, recognizing and treating allergic reactions. He had his own snack every day and for birthday celebrations, the other parents were supposed to let me know a few days in advance of bringing a treat, so that I could bring something similar for my son.

One day, I arrived to pick him up a few minutes early and I peeked inside the classroom. I saw 15 kids laughing and devouring beautifully decorated cupcakes piled high with icing and sprinkles. My son sat there looking forlorn eating wheat-free pretzels and drinking spring water.

Something clicked in me and I wondered how a teacher would think it was okay to serve 15 three year-olds and leave one sitting there.  How can it be a celebration when one child is excluded?

When I talked with other allergy moms, I found out that a lot of them tackled this (birthday exclusion) issue with the “safe snack box”  When I first heard of this, I thought it was an appalling option. I call it the “We’re-planning-ahead-to-exclude-your-child-box.”

It’s one thing for our kids to have to bring their own treat to a friend’s birthday party or to a relative’s house for a holiday. To me, that is understandable. But school is for learning. And if a teacher or school administrator decide to allow children to celebrate birthdays or other holidays at school, I believe these celebrations should be inclusive.

Imagine a video of one allergic child from kindergarten through first grade, second, third, fourth, fifth…dozens of birthdays over the years..where the kids look longingly at the delicious cupcakes being passed around and there is that same child who cannot partake. How can anyone think that is okay?

So, I’ve never sent a safe snack box to school for celebrations, and I feel so grateful that my son has been included in safe celebrations.  However, I have softened my stance over the years and I do realize that what works for my family may not be what  works for others. If parents and their children feel happy with the “Safe Snack Box” option, I’m happy they’ve found something that works.

Nicole: My son never had upset by eating a treat that’s different from everyone else, and I guess I’m lucky that he didn’t!

He has always viewed it that his snack is safe, and that makes it the best food in the world! When he went to camp during his 6th grade school year – a ‘rite of passage’ with all 6th graders in our school district – he brought his own safe food rather than rely on the camp cafeteria to cook for him. So many of his classmates were envious of how wonderful his food looked in comparison to theirs! They begged him to save them just a bite or two!!

Gina: The other issue is that this situation (birthday cupcake celebration), is a school activity regardless of who brings in the treats. Teaches and/or administrators make the call as to whether to serve the food or not.

If I declare the first Tuesday of every month, “Spaghetti and meatball day” and decide to serve that to the class, I think they’d turn me down! lol

We need to get away from the thinking that “we” (allergy moms) have to convince other classroom parents to include our kids or keep them safe.

That may be the case for playdates, but this is school.

Children with food allergies have a right to be included at school.

Most schools have a policy that students can only give out birthday invitations in the classroom, if they are going to invite all of their classmates. Understandably, the teachers don’t want any students to feel excluded.  But clearly, when in-class birthday celebrations occur and everyone is sharing cupcakes except you, you’ll feel left out.

And there are many, many reasons for restricting food or foods from the classroom anyway. We have a nation where 63% of adults and now 35% of American children are overweight or obese. Let’s find a healthier way to celebrate!

Nicole: Another emotional aspect of food allergies at school that we have found is the potential for bullying. It seems that some children are just looking for how to make others feel inferior, and sadly food allergies makes a child such an easy target! And some parents I have dealt with have their own methods of bullying too!

My son’s bullying experiences have been taken very seriously by the school administrator(s) and immediate and decisive responses have been given toward the bully. In fact, the first incident where a child bullied my son was in 1st grade. He threatened Morgan with a peanut butter cracker saying, “I’m going to kill you with this cracker!” Morgan didn’t take the incident very seriously, yet his friend did and reported it to the playground monitor. The offending child was hauled into the Principal’s office, his parents were called and he was suspended for the rest of the day! It was a decisive move, and I really appreciated the Principal taking swift action. The wonderful thing is that today Morgan and this boy are good friends! And they don’t even have to talk about the incident anymore.

I didn’t get into the middle of the incident, and never felt the need to discuss this little boy’s actions with his parents. I allowed the elementary school Principal to do her job, which allowed me to work on forgiveness – which is very difficult when someone threatens your child! And it also allowed me to see how our school district needed guidelines for severely allergic students to assist schools to deal with situations like this.

Gina: Regarding the bullying issue, both of my kids have been bullied at different various times. It’s never fun for a parent to have to deal with this but when you know your child is vulnerable medically, it’s even more disturbing.

I agree with you though that some of this starts with the parents. And that is why I think it is important for allergy parents to really become informed so they can truly advocate for their child. And you can still do this nicely.

A lot of times, teachers will ask the allergy parent to write a letter, or speak in front of the classroom asking them not to send in a particular food or to please consider bringing something safe for the allergic child.

I think this approach sets the wrong tone. It perpetuates the notion that accommodating allergic children is optional or that it is up to the other classroom parents.  This is a potentially life-threatening medical condition and if accommodations are required, they should be implemented. It should never be left to the good nature of other classroom parents.

So before I dismount from the soapbox, let me say that I also really believe in the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I know parents who have taken a completely different approach from mine, and it’s worked beautifully, and that’s terrific.

Nicole: Thanks Gina for a great conversation about just a few of the  emotional aspects of food allergies in schools. It’s emotional for parents and for children with food allergies. Together we can help our children grow into capable advocates for themselves!

 

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