Food Allergies in the Rainforest
Last updated: March 2023
I do not have food allergies, but I have lived with them for 22 years.
My son, John, was diagnosed with allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts when he was 2 years old. My message is for other parents of young children with food allergies who might be overwhelmed by being a caregiver: it is possible for your child to live a happy, fulfilled life with food allergies.
Overwhelmed and anxious
Fearful of a severe allergic reaction
Our son gave us food allergy signals from the time he was an infant. He had a hard time keeping some foods down, and his skin was constantly red and itching. When he was finally diagnosed, we felt the same fear and anxiety that all parents of children with food allergies feel, from fear of a catastrophic event to anxiety about his food options and nutritional needs.
Anxious about my son's emotional needs
But we also had fears and anxieties about his emotional needs. Family, friends, and other parents were sometimes as overwhelmed as we were about keeping him safe. We worried that people would see him as just his food allergies and not see the interesting person he was, even at a young age.
He is more than just his allergies
I remember answering the phone one late summer day when he was 5 years old. It was Mrs. M, who would be his kindergarten teacher in a few weeks. She wanted to talk about his allergies. I gave her lots of detail about the precautions we take. At some point, it occurred to me that she was hearing nothing about him besides his allergies.
So I told Mrs. M about his love of animals. I told her about the many hours we spent with John at zoos, museums, in nearby woods – anywhere that there might be animals. And I told her about the large diorama of the Amazon Rainforest that he had created with the small plastic animals he collected. And that it was scientifically accurate, thanks to the books and videos he got from the library every week.
I let Mrs. M see that John was more than just his allergies.
Balancing allergy safety with enjoying life
Over time, we learned to care for our son's physical and emotional needs. It was a learn-as-you-go experience.
But even as we dealt with his changing day-to-day needs, there was one thing we always worried about. How could we balance our keeping him safe with letting him live his life? This was learn-as-you-go as well.
It involved encouraging him to learn to care for himself and recognize food he might want to avoid (things like a baseball teammate's Dunkin' bag, which might contain an egg and cheese sandwich, for example). He learned what to do in case of an emergency or a problem. He needed to know he could trust himself to keep himself safe.
Food allergies in the rainforest
Were we successful? Yes.
When John was a junior in college, majoring in Wildlife Biology, he fulfilled a lifelong dream and spent 3 weeks in the rainforest of Peru as part of an Environmental Studies class. Before he left, he researched food allergies in Peru, made up cards that explained his allergies in Spanish and made sure his classmates and professor knew of his situation.
It almost didn't matter. He spent 3 weeks eating fish that he pulled directly from a river and cooked over an open fire and fresh fruits and vegetables from a nearby village, all foods that were safe for him.
Lessons to share with parents
And while we look back and know we were successful, we were far from perfect. We learned some lessons along the way. I hope to share some of what we learned.
My message is for parents of young children with food allergies. It can seem overwhelming at times, and you may have fear that your child will ever have a "normal" life. They can. Trust yourself, trust your child, and teach them well.
How often do you connect with others who have food allergies?