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Back to school safety: Teaching your child to manage their allergy

As a parent of a child with food allergies, it’s understandable that you want to protect them as much as you can. But when they’re at school, you lose some of that control. It’s time to teach your child to manage their allergies when you’re not around. Here’s how.

Little boy eating packed lunch

Ask any parent and they’ll tell you: It’s not easy having a kid with severe food allergies. The challenge for you, as a parent, is to empower your child to make good decisions and manage their food allergies. It’s hard, but when your child hits school age, you need to let go and give them a little more responsibility. And that comes down to teaching them how to make safe choices so that they can avoid having an allergic reaction.

Carry emergency medication at all times

First and foremost, the best thing you can do to protect your child is to teach them to carry their adrenaline auto-injector at times — including when they are at school. It may be a hassle but it is well worth it: Remember, a quick injection is key to surviving a severe or potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It’s also a good idea to spend some time teaching your child how to use their medication in case they find themselves having an attack when they’re alone. Your allergy specialist can be an invaluable resource during this time of learning, so don’t hesitate to ask them for help. If you can’t get to your doctor, the Royal Children’s Hospital has a great fact sheet on their website.

Know who can help them at school

As a parent, you need to partner up with teachers and school nurses so that they know what to do if your child has a reaction. A great way to do this is to write up a step-by-step plan (with your doctor’s input) of what to do in an emergency and talk it through with staff members. Also, give an auto-injector to a few of them (this may be an expensive measure, but when it’s your child’s life in question, it’s worth being overly cautious). While the school will keep an eye on your child, they may miss something, so let your child know where their medication is located at school and which staff members can access it.

Speak up if something happens

If your child has an allergic reaction, it is crucial that they alert teachers or friends that something is wrong. With the help of your allergy specialist, teach your child to recognise the symptoms of an allergic reaction. Then, drill it into them that they must tell an adult straight away if they think they are having an attack. The worst thing they can do is disappear on their own — even if they do know how to administer their medication, a trip to the emergency room is a must to make sure everything is fine.

It’s okay to say “no, thanks”

You can pack your child’s lunch every day and ban them from going to the canteen, but in a school environment, chances are they will be exposed to other foods. As such, one of the most valuable things you can do is teach your child to say no. Ask them to avoid sharing or swapping food with their classmates and tell them to be strong if their friends are pressuring them to eat something. Children can be cruel and saying no may be hard, but as a parent it’s your job to teach your child how important that little word can be. Also, teach them to avoid eating any foods whose ingredients are unknown, such as the muffins baked by their friend’s mum, or the dishes served up at the school fair.

Get familiar with food labels

Unfortunately, when your child has an allergy, many things are out of your control — such as the food they are offered by others. To combat this, teach your child how to read food labels and identify allergenic ingredients. A warning:This takes lots of practice and patience. The fine print is small and the list is long, but luckily food manufacturers now need to state if the product has come into contact with common allergens. For example, many packages will say “may contain almonds or other nuts.” Give your child the chance to read and compare labels and point out “no-go” ingredients. If your kid is too young to understand, teach them this: “If you can’t read it, don’t eat it.” Simple.

Other pointers

  • Don’t keep the food allergy a secret — encourage your child to tell their classmates and friends.
  • Get your child to wear a medical identification bracelet — this will give any paramedics and doctors the information they need to know about their allergy when they treat it.
  • Teach your kid the importance of washing their hands regularly to avoid exposure to “triggers”.
  • Report bullying so that action can be taken by the school.

More info

The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network has a great video about helping your child to manage their allergy in the school setting. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) also has a brilliant guide for parents on their website.

More about dealing with allergies

The signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis
Children and food allergies
10 Foods nutritionists ban their kids from eating

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