According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network, as many as 15 million people have food allergies The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children under the age of 18 are caused by food allergies.
It’s likely someone you know is allergic to food. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, or pecans), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish account for about 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions. Being allergic to one or more foods can certainly affect everything from how and where a person eats to how they socialize.
And if parenting wasn’t tough enough, raising a child with one or more food allergies can be an even bigger challenge—but it can be an enlightening one. Just ask Susan Weissman, author of the poignant new book Feeding Eden: The Trials and Triumphs of a Food Allergy Family. Read on learn more about Susan’s heartfelt and courageous journey to help her son manage his food allergies and find her strength (and herself) along the way.
Q: Your son Eden was first diagnosed as allergic to dairy when he was nine months old, so why did he have an anaphylactic attack just after he turned one year old?
A: After Eden had his first life-threatening allergic reaction we realized that he must have been allergic to more than dairy foods. Sure enough, he tested as allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, soy, eggs, a variety of legumes, seeds, fish and shellfish. Basically, he was allergic to seven of the top eight most common allergens.
Q. Did Eden’s allergies diminish naturally as Eden grew older? Or do you think there were other factors involved?
A. That would depend on whether you want to view Eden’s allergies as a cup half full or half empty. I’ll describe the half full cup: Eden has fully outgrown his allergy to some foods within certain categories (i.e. he can eat sunflower and pumpkin seeds but not sesame seeds. He can eat shrimp but not all shellfish.) He was diagnosed eight years ago, so no, outgrowth hasn’t happened quickly. And it most likely will not happen, given the scope of all of his forbidden foods.
Q. Do you think having the experience of having a child with life-threatening food allergies has made you a “better” mother?
A: Eden’s food allergies forced me to confront the simple truth Eden is physically vulnerable around food. My job is to teach him emotional awareness: how to protect himself so he can live in the world. But that’s what good parents do.
Q. Can you share strategies parents can use to make sure their kids are safe when they’re at school?
A. Parents are responsible for creating a partnership with teachers and administrators in order to prevent food reactions in schools. Teachers are not gatekeepers. An easy to remember checklist for parents to provide is: Information, Documentation, Medication and Communication. When parents model a partnership, children learn to self-advocate for their needs.
Q. Any advice for parents who have children with food allergies to help them better cope with situations they may experience?
A. I believe that all parents need to teach their children to live in the world, and to be happy despite the natural limits of themselves and their environments. But when your child has a chronic medical condition, you don’t have to accept diminished experiences. Once, when Eden was at a party, someone put a piece of pizza on his plate even after Eden has spoken up and clearly stated, “No thank you. I have food allergies.” Eden’s feelings were hurt when the server ignored him. I used that incident as an opportunity to teach him that very likely there will be people in the world who won’t acknowledge him in a variety of situations outside of his allergies. That kind of behavior hurts everyone’s feelings. And when that happens, Eden needs to learn to focus on enjoying himself with the people he cares about. The same can be applied to any childhood condition affecting the mind or body: Enact solutions and focus on them.
Q. So what are some methods for teaching children how to “live in the world they are given?”
A. Try to create an even playing field at home. Examples might be if a child has ADHD parents can offer physical outlets, if a child has dietary restrictions parents can offer alternatives like safe treats and if your child has learning disabilities they may have a creative outlet at home that requires their special skills. Eden knows that on days that he can’t have dessert in the cafeteria, he will have an extra one at home after school.
Q. Is there anything particular you worry about when Eden is at school?
A. It’s safe to say that all allergy parents fear for that one slip-up, the accidental exposure or ingestion to a deadly food for their child. But far more important, we fear that that the adults charged with our child’s safety would not recognize the warning signs of anaphylaxis and ensure that epinephrine is administered. That is why food allergy education and communication between parents and teachers is so crucial
Q. Do you believe that classrooms and even whole schools should be made “free-of” particular foods?
A. Not necessarily. Institutional food restrictions may be helpful under certain circumstances. For example, younger populations of student tend may need external precautions about foods and cross-contamination. But there are eight top allergens so it’s impossible to limit them all and feed children nutritiously. It might make more sense to cherry-pick the most dangerous and likely of food allergens, like peanuts and nuts, and offer alternatives like safe zones. But decisions like that are dependent on community need and ability.
You can learn more about Susan Weissman and Feeding Eden here.
Full disclosure: Susan is a friend and sent me a review copy of her book.