There is a fine line we walk when it comes to being both friendly and confident with food allergies. We need people to listen and be respectful, but we want people to hear our needs and understand what we are saying. We also don’t want to come across in a way that will anger, worry or upset others.
Over the years, a continuous question has come up, both for myself as well as for others that have asked me about their children with allergies. How can you inform people about the severity so that they understand without giving them the impression of being overcautious or dramatic? How do you handle uncomfortable situations with friends or family that just don’t “get it”?
Here are my top three ways to be amiable yet assertive with food allergies.
1. Be Kind & Keep Your Cool
When we are already worried or uncomfortable about something, it is easy to lose our cool. In a moment of frustration, I can easily feel like I want to say words that I would later regret. I take a deep breath, realize who ever I am speaking to just does not understand and needs me to educate them, and then I do my best to do just that.
I know from experience with my students for example, that in a fit of frustration, if I talk to a student in a raised tone of voice, they will stop whatever it is they shouldn’t be doing, but they won’t learn from what they did and I will later see them repeat whatever the problem is. They are blocking out everything I am saying and shutting down when my voice is filled with irritation because it doesn’t sound caring and they don’t yet understand why I am upset. When I realized this, I changed my approach when faced with frustration. Instead, I now ask the student to stop, then when I have counted down in my head and taken a few deep breaths, I ask them to come see me and I patiently explain why their actions are unsafe or unexpected, whatever it may be. They can listen to me, hear what I am saying and hopefully have a better understanding of why they should not do what they were doing for the future. I know I am talking about nine-year-olds and we can all hope that adults can handle themselves better, but many of us know this is not always the case.
If you are a frustrated parent who starts raising your voice at another parent who doesn’t understand your child’s allergy or the restaurant server who didn’t realize they made a mistake, they are only going to see that as indignation towards you, and will not try to understand what they can do to fix a situation and make it safer. You need to keep your cool. It’s not easy, but it is necessary for understanding. When you stay calm, people are more likely to take in the information and make an effort to understand what you are explaining to them. It can feel exhausting and tedious, but kind and calm make a difference. Take the high road. It is called that for a reason.
2. Know Your Comfort Level
Now that I am an adult, my comfort level has changed since childhood. No matter what age though, I knew what felt safe and what didn’t and I always let that lead my decision making. I have never known a life without allergies, so they have been an ever present role in my own “normal” every day.
Knowing your comfort level will help you to determine how to approach certain uncomfortable situations. Can you relate to this example?
You decide to go out to eat with friends. They have their kids. You have yours. They know your child has a severe allergy. Their children do not have any allergies. On the menu there are enough allergy-free options and you are able to find something for your allergic reactor to eat. Your friends have no restrictions, so they easily choose anything off the menu, including a dish that makes you cringe as they order it, something covered in your child’s allergen. What do you do? What do you say to them? Do you feel comfortable that they have that food at the table with your allergic child?
This is when knowing your comfort level is crucial. Personally, I feel safe as an adult having friends eat foods I am allergic to at the same table. They know to wash their hands after eating (and if they don’t I can give them a quick reminder). I am old enough though and have been in that situation enough in my life that I feel comfortable with it. Even as a child, I remember friends and family ordering food I could not eat, but everyone knew not to kiss me and to wash their hands. My parents made it clear what they expected everyone to do, and because of that I don’t ever remember it being treated as a big deal.
What if you are new to the world of food allergies though? What if you are new to the world of parenting, never mind food allergies? You need to know the facts and you need to decide your comfort after that. If your child has only had a mild reaction once and you are just avoiding those allergens, maybe you do feel comfortable having those foods at the table. If your child had an anaphylactic reaction or you are told they could have one, you may not feel comfortable sharing a table that has your child’s allergens on it. Depending on the age of your child and what variables you can control, that is something else to take into consideration. Unfortunately, there are times where you do have to make a decision about what feels most comfortable to you. If your child is new to the allergies, you can always let your friends know ahead of time where your comfort is before meeting them out to eat. If you are not comfortable having the allergen at the table, tell them that ahead of time so they know what to expect. That way it will take away any awkward pressure and worry. Another suggestion is to call the restaurant ahead of time so they know you are coming with a child that has severe allergies (this is really a good approach no matter what the situation). Depending on the restaurant, they will likely send over the manager and will also have a server who is already aware. In this case, your friends may have a light bulb moment where they finally get the severity of the allergies. Sometimes it takes continuous exposure to your situation to understand why the precautions you take are so significant.
The more you as a parent are put into social situations where you need to decide what will make you feel safe, the more you will be able to use these experiences to decide where your comfort level lies. If you are feeling anxious at a dinner or a birthday party with your allergic reactor, try to figure out what is making you worry. Is it because people are unaware of your child’s allergy? Is it because you see the allergen out and people are eating it near your child? Trusting your gut feelings as a parent of an allergic reactor (and teaching your child to trust their gut instincts as well) is what has often ended up saving me from potential reactions and could potentially save your child, too.
3. Be Clear About Your Needs.
No apologies are necessary, but I often hear myself apologize. I don’t want to inconvenience people. I don’t want to make people jump through hoops to keep me safe, but in reality I actually do!
It may be inconvenient. I may be a huge pain in the butt, but if they don’t take the necessary precautions then I won’t be safe, and I want to be safe. Therein lies the conflict I feel, as safe and necessary as it is. I know there is a difference in asking for someone to go above and beyond because of not liking a food, but if it is a life-threatening allergy, it is a necessity and should be thought of as one. There is a difference. Smile, ask nicely, but ask. I always ask. I may hear myself apologize on occasion, but I have always asserted myself. As a parent of an allergic reactor, you also need to assert yourself. There are going to be moments where you feel awkward and uncomfortable. Moments where you feel exhausted by the idea of having to explain yourself. You need to do it though! You need to model for your child how to do it, so they can learn to successfully do it for themselves. It isn’t easy, but it is necessary.
You can do this! Be confident, assertive, and kind! Go out into the world and put a good face on food allergies!