‘I need pizza!” my six-year-old screams from the back seat. I inhale slowly to avoid yelling back. A few hours earlier I was crouched over my four-year-old, giving her a lifesaving shot of epinephrine before heading to the emergency room via ambulance. Now we’re driving home. I don’t want to stop for pizza, and my older daughter’s demands are driving me crazy.
My jaw softens, though, as I realise she’s as shaken as I am. But because she is so young, she conveys her feelings with rage, not words. She doesn’t feel like talking, so at bedtime I invite her to play dolls. In a high-pitched voice, her Barbie admits she’s scared her little sister will die. I tear up, realising my first-grader carries such a grown-up worry.
In the United States alone one in 13 children has food allergies. When our younger child was diagnosed, my husband and I focused on her safety, never considering what our non-allergic child might need. We thought it was cute when our older child would throw herself between her sister and a well-meaning adult serving birthday cake, proclaiming: “She has allergies! You need to check with our parents before she eats that.” We didn’t realise the protective big sister role we had encouraged came with outsize stress.
Our non-allergic daughter often laments, “It’s not fair!” She longs to wear a pink medical bracelet and to bring her own cupcake to birthday parties. She insists her little sister is lucky even though she has to take her epinephrine injector everywhere and often has to decline treats.
Gina Clowes, founder of Allergy Moms, coach and author of “One of the Gang: Nurturing the Souls of Children With Food Allergies,” says parents must remember that each child needs to feel special, regardless of allergy status. “If all or most of the emotional energy is devoted to the allergic child, sooner or later, issues are likely to crop up with the child’s sibling,” she says.
There’s no single approach to determining whether your non-allergic child needs help coping. But here are some of the ways parents can support their non-allergic children.
Children imitate behaviour, and if you as the parent demonstrate positive coping skills, then your child will do the same.
“Parents are the most powerful influence on how their children will understand and react to a diagnosis of food allergies,” Clowes says. Little eyes and ears are always watching and listening — especially when we think they’re not.
If you’re stressed and fearful, your kids will be, too. Lakiea Wright, an allergist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says: “Children imitate behaviour, and if you as the parent demonstrate positive coping skills, then your child will do the same.”
Clowes suggests stress management tools such as rest, exercise and healthy eating, but acknowledges that such strategies aren’t always enough. Seek professional help if your child is sad, anxious or angry for a prolonged period; avoids normal activities; or is talking about hurting herself. Clowes encourages parents who need it to find support in a therapist, a friend, a partner or a support group.
Focus on safety
Experts recommend treating allergies like any other safety issue. Michael Pistiner, allergist and director of Food Allergy Advocacy, Education and Prevention at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, uses this strategy; one of his two children has life-threatening food allergies. He tells parents that, just as we always wear seat belts in the car, we always read labels and carry medicine when with an allergic child. When it comes to food allergies, he says, “We don’t necessarily talk about the consequences. We just say, ‘You follow the rules’.
Take a team approach
Experts and parents agree, teamwork is key. Depending on their age and maturity level, parents can give non-allergic siblings a “helper” role. “This can give them a sense of inclusion and allows for open and frequent conversations to occur,” says psychiatrist Qionna Tinney, associate medical director of child services at Cardinal Innovations Healthcare in North Carolina.
Make siblings feel special
Although we might consider our non-allergic children to be fortunate, children may not see it that way. Recently my non-allergic daughter insisted I schedule a physical for her, claiming she needed shots. I was perplexed until I realised she felt neglected; I’d just made an appointment for her sister to see the allergist after we spent an afternoon in the emergency room.
Clowes recommends scheduling regular special time with your non-allergic child, something she did with her older son. Every Sunday, they went to Dunkin’ Donuts, a ritual that lasted even through a teenage phase when he barely spoke to her. “We didn’t keep those kinds of sweets in the house because of my younger son’s multiple food allergies,” she says. “So doughnuts were a treat for my son. I was also demonstrating to him: ‘You’re important. I want to spend time with you.’”
Pam Moore is a columnist and CEO & Founder of Marketing Nutz, a social media and branding agency.