We've been told that "It takes a village" to raise a child and that certainly is the case for a child with food allergies. As a grandparent, you naturally want the best for your grandchildren, yet the notion of a life-threatening allergy to an innocent food can be hard to grasp.
If your grandchild has been diagnosed with food allergies, you must take this medical diagnosis very seriously. Even if he or she is one of the lucky ones who will eventually outgrow the allergy, it is crucial that you err on the side of caution.
Leading pediatric allergist Dr. Robert Wood of Johns Hopkins explained that "One of the most common causes of reactions in allergic children is related to food being provided by the grandparents who never really understood or believed the notion that their grandchild had this severe food allergy."
The good news is that studies have shown that when caregivers are trained in avoiding, recognizing and treating allergic reactions, the frequency and severity of these reactions decreases. The following tips can help you to ease the burden on your loved ones and will enable you to become a more reliable caregiver.
Abide by their rules even if you don't understand them. Since the day their child was diagnosed, your son or daughter has been learning a new way of life with severe food allergies. There are a lot of ambiguities and there is a lot of stress. Assume that the parents know best. You won't get a chance for a "do-over" if your grandchild has a reaction.
Doctor's orders Let your grandchild's physician handle his or her medical care. Allergy parents are bombarded with hokey tips and media stories of treatments and cures involving everything from worms, to herbs, to acupuncture. Some of this research is very promising but for now, assume your grandchild is in good hands with his current physician.
Engage but don't overstep. I read once that grandparents are like pinch hitters. They need to sit on the bench until they're called up. Allergy parents (especially after a recent reaction or diagnosis) often have a lot of anxiety over their child's condition. If you are asked and are able to help, fantastic. But unless you truly believe your grandchild is in danger, don't suggest alternative ways of managing allergies.
Pick your battles Holidays are one of the most challenging times for allergy families. Prioritize. What is the most important thing about the holidays? As Suze Orman says "People first." Yes, you want to make your traditional nut braid and thumb print cookies, but believe me, you can have a festive and loving holiday without cookies, candy, mashed potatoes, even pumpkin pie. But you can't have a glorious family holiday if one family is missing. So think and think again about what's most important.
Phone Home Ask an allergy mom where the phone is when she takes a shower, and 99% of them will tell you that it's right outside the shower door. Most of us have gotten that call about an allergic reaction at one time or another. And when we're leaving our child with a caregiver, our fingers have a mind of their own and we need to make that call to check in. So when you are caring for your grandchildren, keep your phone within reach at all times.
Serve it our way You may have a swell idea about how to reheat little Johnny's dinner but you did not realize that they spray you just put in the pan contained dairy. You saw Alicia eating strawberry sorbet last month. You didn't realize that the brand you purchased is processed on lines with butter pecan ice cream. Daniel's noodles tasted so bland, you thought you'd add a little seasoning, not realizing that it contains wheat. Well-meaning people who are not accustomed to living with food allergies can easily make a dangerous mistake and put a child at risk. Hidden ingredients and cross-contamination have caused serious, even fatal reactions. Do yourself a favor, and serve your grandchild only the foods that his parents have approved and serve them in exactly the way they've asked.
Emotions count You may find yourself thinking that your son or daughter is going overboard with precautions or restrictions. Perhaps you believe that they could safely attend a family picnic, vacation or wedding. You may be right. But consider the family's emotional heath and stress level, especially if the child was recently diagnosed. Sometimes the anxiety level in the home is so high, that it is just not worth all of the preparations and worry about an event. Sometimes it's better to decline a stressful invitation and keep the family safe and calm at home. The emotional well-being of the family members is as important as their physical health.
Get support for yourself Recently, my mother explained that a good friend of hers was a tremendous support to her after my son was diagnosed. I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually thought "Why would you need support?" And then the light bulb went off and I realized that my mother, my son's grandmother, had also gone through the myriad of emotions that follows a scary diagnosis. Once you really grasp the severity of this life-changing medical condition, it can be overwhelming. So if you find yourself feeling sad, or scared or grieving about your grandchild's condition, get the help and support that you need from friends, your spouse or a mental health professional.
These tips are not a substitute for learning about food allergies, and how to avoid, recognize and treat an allergic reaction. However, if you show the willingness to become an informed caregiver, you will go a long way in alleviating the stress and allowing your son or daughter some much needed time off duty. Your concern will nurture and strengthen your relationship with the entire family. Isn't that what grandparenting is all about?