Here are the five ways I help to ease my daughter’s anxiety (and my own) about her food allergies in social situations like birthday parties, classroom parties and playdates, etc. And, I hope this guidance helps you and your kids feel more comfortable for social events in the future too.
*Important note: I am not a medical professional, and the information shared below is not a substitute for medical advice or opinion. I am simply sharing my own experience in hopes it could help another family be more comfortable so they can enjoy social events again.
One of the most valuable ways you can help ease your child’s anxiety about their food allergies in just about any situation is by educating them on the allergy itself in an age-appropriate way.
How did I do this?
I sat down with her around early elementary age, 5 or so, and explained that we have to be really careful when we are with friends at their house and at birthday parties and even at school not to eat the wrong thing. So it’s important for her to know to always read the label of ingredients with an adult.
Here are the basic first steps of showing your child what to look for with a peanut allergy, and it’s what I taught my daughter:
Keywords to look for:
“Made in a facility” = safe
“Made on equipment” = unsafe
“May contain peanut” = unsafe
“May contain tree nuts, coconut and shells or pits.” = ask your doctor. (For my daughter it’s ok, but if your child is sensitive to other nuts besides peanuts, don’t try this without checking with your doctor.)
This basic label reading approach is very helpful for parents and adults who are unfamiliar with any food allergies and especially peanuts.
It probably goes without saying, but it is critical to have open communication with both parents of your child’s friends and their teachers, with regard to your child’s allergy. But, it is also important for you to communicate with your child before they go to playdates and attend birthday parties.
How did I do this?
I had a text or phone call with each parent before any playdate took place. I asked key questions like:
What snacks will you be serving at the playdate or party?
Is there any chance of peanuts in those items?
If there were peanuts/peanut butter products going to be present, I would request that the parents not serve that at the party.
You would be surprised, but all parents are empathetic and understanding. I always felt bad asking, but my daughter’s safety felt like the priority vs. inconvenience. It’s worth the trouble.
The best thing you can do to ease your child’s anxiety in all of these situations, is to plan ahead for playdates and other social gatherings where food will be present for your child. This will offer both you and your child a feeling that you have some element of control over what is happening in an otherwise stressful scenario.
How did I do this?
It’s simple actually. Follow our rule below, and you are good to go:
I tell my daughter “if I didn’t pack it for you, the parent or adult or teacher has to check with me if it’s ok.”
I make her repeat this back to me before she goes in (if it’s a drop off). She would say: “If you didn’t pack it for me, then they have to check with you before I eat it.”
So when she goes to her friends, the parent or adult will text me with a photo “Is this ok to give her for a snack?” To which I confirm or decline. It’s not a perfect system, but it has kept her safe thus far.
As she gets older, I will have her text me to check if she is unsure and she is getting more comfortable reading labels on her own - but we aren’t there yet.
So please use your own judgment on what your child can manage and what is comfortable for you and your family. There is no reason you can’t try this approach too. Parents want to make sure your kid is safe with them!
Now, this doesn’t mean tell them all the potential scenarios of things that could go wrong with their allergy if they were to accidentally consume it.
How did I do this?
For example, for every birthday party I ask the parent what they will be serving (*see the communication bullet above) and I try to mirror this approach.
So, if they are serving pizza and cake. I pack her gluten free pizza and a nut safe gluten free dessert. This often will be similar - gluten free chocolate cake or cupcake or a special cookie. This way she feels more included and like she is eating something similar to everyone else.
For a classroom party, I talk with the teacher and ask what they are doing for a certain class, food craft, etc. If it's unsafe food for my daughter, I will offer to bring in another food alternative for the craft. So for a chex mix, I would put together the following items:
Rice or corn chex cereal
Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels (gluten-free)
For a playdate, when the parent is planning snacks, I always pack one for her to bring. And, if she wants to have anything else other than what I packed they have to check with me first. Find more allergy-friendly snacks in Emily's recommended products shop.
It doesn’t help anyone else, especially your kid, if you are stressed about them attending social events and parties. In fact, they are very sensitive to your mood. I believe it’s called “emotional attunement.” If you are anxious about them playing at a friend’s house because of food allergy stuff, they will be nervous too. That doesn’t help anyone.
How did I do this?
I believe if you try out these 5 ways to ease your child’s anxiety, that it will also ease your own fears of your child being unsafe in different social situations. I always want my kid to feel empowered and not overwhelmed.
I have taught my daughter how to do belly breaths when she feels nervous. Giving your kids coping skills to deal in those situations, and the tools above (educating them, communicating with others, planning ahead and preparing) will set you up for success.
It’s important, in my opinion, that they have positive experiences in those social situations so they will want to continue attending these events and bonding with their peers.
Having a food allergy does not mean there is something wrong with you because you are different and have different needs than others. It just means you need to know what to do in different situations - to educate, communicate, plan, prepare and remember to breathe!
Hi. I’m Lisa. I’m an Entrepreneur and a Mom of two kiddos. My daughter Ella is 10 and son Noah is almost 4. My daughter, Ella has a severe peanut allergy that started when she was two-years old. I have spent the last 8 years fine-tuning a sort of “protocol” that works for us when we go to social events/situations where there will potentially be peanuts/peanut butter. This approach has helped me navigate the world of motherhood as a protective food-allergy. Like many of you, I just want my kid to be safe and to be able to enjoy social events without worries. Unfortunately, I can’t put her in a bubble despite my desire to protect her forever from this allergen. So, I wanted to share with you some of the things I do to make sure she is her own best advocate and we are always prepared in case she accidentally consumes peanuts. Find Lisa McCarty on Instagram @mccarty717.
Consider this the perfect compliments to this article, the episode on Whole-Body Health, Social Well-Being of Food Allergy Children with Dr. Ayelet Fishbach. Also, Pediatric Food Allergy course, Fear to Freedom and Food Allergy Essentials Resource.