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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Holiday Survival Guide from an Allergic Mom with an Allergic Toddler - Guest Blogger, Teri Noto

Teri has the unique perspective of growing up with food allergies during a time allergies weren't well recognized or accepted, as well as, being the mother of a food allergic toddler.  She's a 4th generation allergy child on her mother's side and her father almost died of food allergies as an infant.  She tells people that at her family's parties, you can't swing your arms without smacking a half a dozen people who are severely allergic to something.  I was drawn to her humor from the start! 

Teri was diagnosed with food allergies at 6 weeks of age.  Eventually it was determined that she had too many allergies to foods to list.  She was diagnosed as anaphylactic to peanuts/tree nuts at age 6 and fish at 8 years of age. She was more mildly allergic to milk from infancy till around age 10. 

Her mantra is the following: "Allergic people and their families are best helped by realizing it is impossible to pour your own cup into someone else's when your cup is empty, and doing what it takes to keep everyone's cup full".

You can tell from the length and the content of this Survival Guide, that this is an allergy mom you want on your side!  thanks Teri!!

A Holiday Survival Guide from an Allergic Mom with an Allergic Toddler

As a child, I loved Christmas. It was Rudolph that kind of ticked me off.

I was allergic to milk as a child—not severely, but bad enough where the increased volume of milk and cookies at family gatherings during the holidays posed a problem. When I consumed too much dairy, I would develop a rash on my face—most notably, on my nose.

Yes, I looked like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and a couple of my cousins weren’t hesitant to point it out. Sometimes quite rudely.

Why did I still do it? I think I just wanted to feel normal.

The holidays can be stressful for anyone. Decorating and shopping are time-consuming and may put financial pressure on us. Family relationships that might be strained the rest of the year may snap under the added stress of too much time spent together. Work parties can be a minefield of politics. 

Food-allergic people and their families face additional stress because no matter what you celebrate, whether you are religious or not, food is a major component of holiday celebrations. The song may say “all I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,” but I’d say any allergic family would gladly trade all the gifts, candles, decorations, and rituals in the world to be able to participate in Holiday meals carefree.

I believe that it is quite possible for people with food allergies to live good lives; however, our definition of “normal” is going to differ from those who don’t have to be concerned about something as innocent as food harming or killing them. The holidays are no exception to this, and most allergic families face extra, sometimes exhausting, mental and physical legwork.

I feel that one of the main struggles of an allergic family is to convince others that serving any particular food is less important than making everyone feel welcome at the table, regardless of their medical condition.    

Here are my suggestions for reducing some of the added stress food allergic families face.

A. Be prepared

What do you need to ensure that holiday parties are safe for you or your loved ones? Here are some suggestions: 
  • Cook separate foods. Bring extra serving dishes. (Buying extra pieces/containers to make it easier on you to transport food may be well worth the expense.)
  • Make food in advance and freeze it.
  • Ask party hosts if you can arrive early to help clean surfaces before other guests arrive, or (would they) honor special seating requests.
  • Ask hosts to relocate pets or pets’ food (which can sometimes contain food allergens) to another area.
  • Ensure anyone with allergies eats something before the party in case the food there is not safe. (We did this a lot when I was a kid; I still do it for most parties)
  • Communicate with people in advance what contingency plans you have to reduce awkwardness.
  • Ask people to give non-food gifts or treats. Pack an emergency stash of allergen-free food.
  • Contact restaurants in advance to make sure they can accommodate allergies.
  • Map the nearest store or emergency room or keep your GPS maps up to date.
  • Ask your allergist and any communities of allergic people to which you belong for their tips on ensuring safe and happy holidays. A feeling of good preparation can reduce a lot of the stress of the holidays.
  • Also, don’t neglect to prepare yourself by prioritizing sleep and good food—you will need as much energy as possible to get through the holiday without snapping from the stress.
B. Prioritize and spread out the tasks
  • Do your gift shopping early, so you can focus on food as the holiday draws near.
  • Ask for help from others you trust to either assist with shopping and decorating or food preparations.
  • When you pack up decorations after the holiday is over, be as organized as possible to save time next year.
  • Remember that the most important thing about a holiday is to spend time with those you love.
C. Remember that different is okay
  • It may be hard to convince non-allergic family members in particular to change traditions, but try to be as positive as possible.
  • Some communication with family members, coworkers, and/or holiday party guests beforehand is usually helpful. It’s a lot easier to absorb the blow of changing a time-honored tradition if people know about the need for the change in advance.
  • You have a teachable moment for everyone in the family; winter holidays are typically about celebrating family and friends, love, support, making amends, and wishes of good health and good fortune.
  • What better way to show love, support, and the value of good relationships than by accommodating a family member’s medical condition? If nothing else, remind the rest of the family that the thing people will remember most about each holiday celebration is being together, not whether each table contained a dish of nuts or a cheese and cracker tray.
  • If it’s not possible to have allergen-free foods, don’t make a big deal of the special food that’s served for anyone with allergies.
  • Allergic family, friends, and coworkers will appreciate your making them a higher priority than things like having a perfectly clean house or personalized greeting cards. 
Holiday traditions feel like they should be permanent fixtures, or the holiday somehow loses its meaning. Holiday traditions had to start somewhere. At some point, the rock-solid tradition of today was a new change that may not have been welcome by all, or may have started because of some other adversity.

Traditions are wonderful, but not when they interfere with peoples’ ability to participate. They should serve the family and community, not the other way around. 

As a child, there were many times in which I had to be served something different than what the rest of the family or party was eating. What mattered to me was being able to take part in the celebration, not whether I was eating something that looked or tasted exactly the same as everyone else.

D. Combat stress by keeping expectations realistic
  • Keep your expectations realistic. A happy holiday is not going to be 100% joy, and that’s okay. As well-prepared as you are, plans can always go awry for you the same as they can for non-allergic people.
  • Stress is inevitable. Whether it’s the stress of getting your home ready for guests; cooking allergen-free foods; lugging around a stash of safe foods; keeping after other relatives to label foods appropriately; avoiding cross-contamination; reading food labels thoroughly; or, just ensuring that everyone is respectful of the need to accommodate the allergic person, something stressful will happen.
  • Choose your battles with the highest priority being what will truly make allergic family, friends, and coworkers feel the most included.
  • Remember that allergic people want nothing more than to be normal and have the same kind of holiday fun as everyone else.  
E. Accept that some people just don’t get it
  • If people are being unkind or disrespectful, remember that it says a lot more about them than it does about you.
  • Happiness is a choice; don’t let people who are too immature to place the appropriate value on the lives of others choose for you.
  • When someone refuses to accommodate a food allergy or bullies family, friends, or coworkers who have food allergies, it can be very hurtful. It sends the message that food and the comfort of those whose lives are less complicated are more important than keeping the allergic person alive and healthy. It’s a dehumanizing message that all too often, non-allergic people aren’t aware or don’t care that they’re sending.
  • If you are concerned about how your children will feel at family gatherings, perhaps my perspective as an adult who had many food allergies as a child will help.
    • At a young age, I learned quickly that people could be downright cruel because I was different. My parents made sure that I knew that they valued me more than they valued the opinions of the family members who didn’t treat me well.
    • They let me know that sometimes the holidays mean spending some time with family members you don’t like so that you can also spend time with those you do like, and that some people will not change no matter how hard we try.
    • We cannot control family members but we can control how we respond and focus on our time with the family members we like.
    • My parents dealt with this with a mix of techniques, such as making preparations in advance, using humor to turn negative comments aside, sticking close to positive family members during parties, and focusing on the positive things that naysayers and bullies cannot take away.
  • If the bullying or lack of accommodation gets severe enough, consider changing where the holiday parties are located, drastically limiting the time spent with people who refuse to accommodate allergies, or cutting ties. This may be a painful step, but it may be less painful in the long run than exposing yourself/your family to that kind of negativity at a time that’s supposed to be joyful.
F. Remember that for an allergic child, comfort is crucial

An allergic child faces twin difficulties: 
    A) The change in routines that the holidays bring as well as,
    B) The fear brought by copious amounts of possibly strange foods prepared in potentially allergen-contaminated kitchens by people who may not be as detail-oriented as you. 
Do what it takes to make your allergic child comfortable, even if it means:
  • letting your child change out of her gorgeous holiday dress or his handsome holiday suit into ratty old pajamas midway through the party
  • lugging extra toys along
  • insisting on hosting the party at your home. 
Do what it takes to make yourself comfortable, even if it means:
  • sitting at the kids’ table
  • avoiding alcohol in case you have to drive to the store for allergen-free foods
  • foregoing a fashionable clutch for a larger purse so you can bring along extra medications.
Allergic children may not have the wherewithal to express what they need to feel comforted or to show appreciation for your efforts to keep them comfortable, but they and you will feel better able to tackle any challenges when comfort is made a priority.

G. Focus on the positive

Approaching the holidays with a positive attitude may be difficult, and it may be hard to roll with the punches positively when plans go awry or people are disrespectful. I’m not perfect at this, despite the fact that I’ve dealt with food allergies my whole life.  

The holidays are a time of joy as well as a time of forgiveness, starting fresh, and making positive changes. Focus on your plans, communicate with others, pick your battles, trust your instincts, cut out as much negativity as possible, forgive, and celebrate the good times.

With some planning, realistic expectations, a positive attitude, and the right priorities you can enjoy this time of year as much as everyone else.

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