HomeBeing a role model with food allergy

Being a role model with food allergy

December 4, 2019

As a teacher, tour guide, volunteer, and aunt, I’m always aware of the children around me. As someone with severe food allergies, I’ve become even more aware of where they are, what they’re eating, and what they’re touching. With 96 children regularly involved in my life last year, that awareness was definitely in overdrive… but it all went well, and I learned a ton!

Without further ado, here are my top 3 favourite parts of being a role model with allergies:

1. Telling kids about life challenges

It’s really important to tell kids the truth. I first learned that the summer after I broke my back while running summer camp programming and dealt with a lot of pain. No one was available to replace me, and it was taking most of my energy not to scream from pain. So, I finally admitted to the kids what was going on, that I wasn’t angry with them, and that I wanted to do the programming but didn’t have any extra energy for silly behaviour that day. I was honestly shocked at the time by how compassionate the kids suddenly became. Their behaviour was stellar, they went above and beyond to work as a team so we could do the activities, and they were so careful and compassionate to try and care for me.

Now that I am teaching with allergies, I have been equally impressed by the ways that students have reacted to learning the truth. Almost all of them show much more care, compassion, and understanding than the adults in my life! I make sure to reassure them while I’m telling them about the allergies, because most of my students become very concerned about my allergies. Sometimes it’s a balancing act, to let them know the truth of what’s happening so that they can help prevent a reaction, while also making sure that they won’t be unnecessarily anxious. This leads me to the second favourite part:

2. Teaching the kids what they can do to help

So how do I talk to kids about allergies? By giving them strategies that will help. In my classrooms, my allergies come up almost as soon as I meet the students, since it’s a matter of safety. My fast version is: “Hey everyone! I need you to know that I have a lot of severe food allergies. It’s okay, you can eat my allergens while I’m here, but I’m going to ask that you sit down while you eat, keep your food contained, and that you wash or wipe your hands after you eat.” I also ask my students not to spray or throw anything in the room, and not to use scented products (since many scents will trigger my asthma).

After this, I open it up the floor for questions and link it into whatever relevant curriculum applies to their age group. My goal in being honest and open about allergies is both to stay safe, but also to showcase that allergies aren’t something that interfere with my life. This includes teaching them some basic first aid skills, like when and why to call emergency 9-1-1. Sometimes (if they’re lucky) I’ll even break out the epinephrine auto-injector training tools and fake glowing germs to teach them how to wash their hands!

3. Modelling life with allergies

My favourite way to teach kids about allergies doesn’t involve much, I just keep living my life! I was so impressed when I asked my Brownies group about food safety rules for their “Be a Chef” badge. “How do we make sure our food won’t make people sick?” I asked. “Make sure they aren’t allergic to it” was the first response from about five of them. We then talked about germs, bacteria and keeping food at the right temperature, but I was very impressed that food allergies were on their minds.

I also find myself grateful to be frequently in positions of discomfort around kids and food. I tell them the truth, so that they can learn, but they also learn about my allergies because I show them. They notice my epinephrine auto-injector, and my MedicAlert® bracelet. They watch me walk away from food that I shouldn’t touch, wipe down tables, wash my hands, and get chronic hives rather more than I’d like. They listen as I tell other adults nearby about my symptoms, and then they watch me keep on living my life without slowing down. I’ve met more than a few paramedics over the years, and one of them once told me that he found my stories of everyday life most inspiring, because I have so many allergies and yet, my life keeps going.

It’s pretty neat to shatter expectations for people, and I think that’s why I love to see the look of hope when I congratulate kids on carrying their epinephrine auto-injectors. “Hey! I have an EpiPen® too!” I tell them. They are almost always happy to learn that there’s an adult with allergies near them, especially since I’m somehow managing more allergens than them!

I’ve been so grateful to have friends with multiple allergies too, because I have watched as they’ve lived their lives and that gives me courage. I know I’ve been able to pay that forward, too, both with friends whose children have multiple severe allergies, but even with the kids in my own life. A few years ago, a Brownie walked in carrying a shiny backpack that she insisted on carrying everywhere. Turned out it was where she kept her epinephrine and her inhalers. I was so excited to be able to teach her ways to interact around food (while staying safe), and also to show her ways to manage anxiety around it too. The hardest moment was showing all the Brownies how to use the trainer device. She hadn’t ever had one, and had been too anxious to practice at home with the trainer. “Mom can do it” she deflected. So, with much encouragement and modelling, she finally found the courage to give it a try herself. Hopefully she never has to use the actual epinephrine auto-injector, but I know from the look on her face that she learned a lot about managing her own allergies from me, both from my conscious and unconscious modelling.

– Janice H.