Okay, I admit it. I don’t always know what to say when I am trying to describe a health condition or diagnosis to someone else. I find this to be true when talking to my patients but even more so when trying to explain my own personal health to my family and friends. Putting aside the emotions that come along with many health situations, I often struggle to find the right words to accurately describe my health so loved ones understand and can support me if needed, while not creating unnecessary concern.
So if I have a hard time talking about my health to my family and friends, how can you as a parent find a way to explain food allergies to your child? It is an essential conversation, and often one that needs to happen quite early in your child’s life to make sure your little one understands why their food choices are important. It can be even more critical to prepare them for times when you are not there to guide them and oversee their food choices.
Quick overview of how to Explain Food Allergies:
Now let’s dive a bit deeper on where to start:
Talking to toddlers can be tricky since they usually have a short attention span with lots of emotions. You will want to get your point across to your toddler while not scaring them or creating fear about what they are eating. Well fear not!! We have 3 quick and easy steps to help make this a breeze for you as a parent.
Step 1: Pick Your Key Words
You will want to make this conversation simple and quick, so the first step is to pick your key words to communicate which foods are okay and which ones to avoid. Perhaps words like “safe foods” and “unsafe foods”, or maybe “green light foods” and “red light foods” might work for your family. Even something simple like “yes foods” and “no foods” will help your toddler know quickly which foods they can eat and which ones to avoid.
I personally do not like to use “bad foods” because this can make foods and/or meals negative. I like to always focus on the positive side of any situation, and this is especially true when talking about food restrictions. Maybe because I am generally a positive person, but I also think this helps people to think of food as pleasurable and meals as a fun time. You may find other foods that will need to be added to the list of “red light foods” after new foods are introduced into your child’s diet.
Ask your healthcare team for tips and suggestions for key words that they like to use, or even other parents who have children with food allergies. Make sure to let us know in the comments below if you have any suggestions to share with other parents that worked well for you.
Keep in mind, most toddlers are very visual. For your conversation, think about incorporating visual aids to help make it smooth, clear and non-scary. Another way you can start the conversation is by reading a book or viewing a video about your child’s food allergy. Here are a few suggestions to help you get started. There are tons of resources available to find the one that is right just for you and your family:
- 37 Storybooks About Kids with Food Allergies
- Sesame Street video about Allergies
- Gus the Esophagus talking about EoE
- Everyday Cool with Food Allergies Coloring page
Step 2: Make a List
You will want to make a list with all the critical points to include during your conversation. This will help make sure you cover the most important pieces of information clearly and effectively. You know your child best, so think about what items are the most important to include or maybe what they need to know so they are prepared and confident. You may also want to ask your healthcare team where you should focus or ideas on what to include on your list as they will likely have wonderful tips for you. They also know your toddler so they will know what is important for your child if you need more ideas.
Here’s a list of ideas that can help your conversation planning:
- Key Words. You will of course want to explain the Key Words that you have chosen to identify foods. You might also want to discuss which foods are “green light foods” or “red light foods” or perhaps where you might keep a list of foods for them and others as a reference.
- Symptoms or Reactions to Food Allergens. Your toddler will need to know what will happen if they eat something they are allergic to. This point will not only help them understand why this is an important topic, but also help them learn about their body. Does their tummy hurt, does their skin itch or turn red? Or perhaps there is a more immediate reaction such as trouble breathing you will want to cover.
- What To Do/Who to Tell if They Feel Funny. Who should they talk to or what happens when they start to have allergy symptoms? Which person do they need to alert about how they are feeling so they can get the care that is needed? It is important to make sure they know accidents can happen, but also know what to do so they feel confident about the foods they are eating. This can be especially helpful if they are still trying new foods so they can quickly communicate how they are feeling if anything changes.
- Any Specific Rules for Eating. Is there an adult that they must check with before eating? Perhaps there are other rules for your family at mealtimes, or maybe rules you want them to follow when eating away from home to keep them safe.
Step 3: Practice and Repeat
Practice the conversation with another family member or friend. A trial run is always helpful to make sure your thoughts are organized. This final step will also help you to be clear and effective. Once you are ready to have a conversation with your toddler, remember this is an ongoing topic. You will want to repeat the information many times. As the parent of a toddler, you already know that you must repeat yourself many times before the information starts to sink in. Repetition is necessary for learning at this age, so be sure to enlist the help of the entire family and your support system to make sure everyone has the same message and uses the same key words. These 3 easy steps will help prepare you for success when explaining food allergies to your toddler.
I am always entertained by what kids say and how they see the world around them. Let us know how your child describes their food allergies to others, or perhaps how you were able to successfully explain food allergies to your child in the comments below.
–Kristin Crosby, MS, RDN