Certain topics can be challenging when talking about them with children. Take puberty or sex, for instance, or drugs and alcohol, or death. When we do discuss these things with our children, we’re careful to do it in an age appropriate way so they understand without being overwhelmed or afraid. The same is true for discussing allergies.
When my daughter was diagnosed with a food allergy, I, personally, was terrified. I was unsure how much to tell her or how to discuss the severity; she was five at the time. I called the only one I knew at the time who had dealt with food allergies, a mom of one of my daughter’s classmates. She shared with me that she had told her daughter that if she ever ate peanuts she could die. I was a bit taken aback at this. But then I realized that though I couldn’t say this to my daughter, who is very sensitive, cautious, and compliant, because she would be sick with worry, this is what this mom had to tell her daughter, a more light hearted, carefree child, so she would take her allergy seriously.
It boils down to knowing your child in how you discuss allergies or asthma, along with using understandable, appropriate language. If you have a sensitive three year old, you probably don’t want to discuss the clinical progression to anaphylaxis, but you do want to stress that he needs to do his very best to always stay away from ant hills or peanuts (whatever he’s allergic to) because it could make him very, very sick. If you have an older child who can understand more, go with more. If you have a child who needs a little hard truth to get the full severity of her allergy, tell her.
While explaining your child’s allergy to her, help her to be able to explain it to others. Friends might want to know why she can’t eat their birthday cake, or why she can’t go near the flowers in the fall on the playground. It will help your child take ownership of his allergy if he can explain it to his friends. And this can start at a very young age, in words as simple as, “Because it can make me very sick.”
As a child gets older, more information should be given, just as in any of those other things we need to discuss. You should never, however, lie to your child to quell any fears; that can end up being worse than giving too much information too soon. Just start out talking about it in their language – what they need to stay away from, why (in basic language), alternatives they can do or eat, how to talk to their peers about it, and what to do in the case of peer pressure (yes, it even happens with allergies).
Once the dialogue is open, the understanding begins and the fear lessens (both for your child and yourself).
– Heather Legg