In honor of Father’s Day, we asked Michigan dad Tim Burns to write a guest blog post for us about what it’s like to be a father to a daughter with food allergies. Read on for Tim’s advice to other food allergy dads, and to learn more about a Halloween event that he spearheaded in his community geared toward creating an inclusive experience for kids with food allergies.
Tell us about the food allergies in your family and how you manage the day to day challenges they can present.
A few years ago I was a first-time dad juggling the responsibilities of being a parent with a demanding professional career. Our twin son and daughter spent most of their weekdays either at daycare or being looked after by one of their grandmothers while my wife and I were at work.
One nice summer day I decided to take a day off to enjoy with my kids. My wife called me around lunch time. She had never given our children peanut butter before because she was worried about all the things she had read on the Internet about food allergies. She asked me to give some to my son and daughter so that if there was a problem I would be there to deal with it rather than a daycare provider or one of our mothers. I remember telling her it couldn’t be that big of a deal – no one in our family had food allergies, and I hadn’t heard anything about peanut allergies, so how bad could it be? Half an hour later I was in the emergency room dealing with a life-or-death situation; my 18-month-old daughter’s eyes and throat had swollen shut as she went into anaphylaxis from a severe reaction to the peanut butter I had given her.
It has been more than two years since that traumatic food allergy reaction. My daughter is four years old now and doing fine. Interestingly, her twin brother doesn’t have any food allergies. Here are a few ways we manage her food allergy:
- not allowing peanut/tree nut ingredients or products that may contain these allergens into our house;
- avoiding going to high risk places;
- not letting her eat foods that were prepared in someone else’s home;
- being active with informing people about her condition, and;
- reading lots and lots of ingredient and warning labels.
Many of the changes impacting our family have been “little” things that I had simply taken for granted in the past. For example, I’m a big Detroit Tigers fan and going to the ballpark was a regular date night for my wife and me before we had kids. I had been planning on buying season tickets for our family. Now we only go as a family to the one baseball game a year where the Tigers sell tickets to a peanut allergy-friendly suite. We don’t go out to get ice cream or buy dessert at restaurants because of ingredient and cross-contact issues. I rarely read ingredient labels before my daughter’s food allergy, now that’s standard operating procedure before she eats anything.
The biggest challenges with our daughter’s food allergy have been her own understanding of it and others peoples’ responses to it. My daughter knows she can’t eat “nuts” or she will get sick and have to go to the hospital, but she still really doesn’t grasp the details and dangers that this presents. I worry that if someone offered her candy or a cookie she would take it and eat it without thinking about it. Our other big challenge is that businesses often don’t understand that food can be dangerous without having peanuts as an ingredient because of cross-contact.
What advice would you give to other dads with kids who have food allergies?
Speak up! Most people don’t understand the seriousness and complexity of severe food allergies. I have to say that I was clueless myself until our family was impacted. You need to be your child’s most vigilant advocate by educating everyone and being willing to say no to others when it presents a risk to your child. It’s not easy or comfortable having to constantly speak up to a teacher or other parents to require and enforce rules that safeguard your child, but if you don’t do it, no else is likely to stand up for you.
Also it is unacceptable for your child to be excluded or isolated because of their food allergy. My daughter’s preschool started sending her to the office during snack time so they wouldn’t have to take precautions for her in the classroom. I stopped that quickly and we switched schools the next year. Be alert for behavior that excludes your child, and be prepared to intervene.
Food allergies don’t make life worse, they just make it different. We actually eat healthier now because we have more of a focus on our diet. Help your family make the best of the situation!
Studies show that moms and dads react differently to food allergies in their families. In your experience is that the case?
My wife is definitely more active in researching information concerning my daughter’s food allergy than me. She is also more protective when it comes to restricting my daughter’s activities to limit her exposure to potentially dangerous situations. I don’t want my daughter to grow up in fear of her allergy, so I am more open to allowing her to go places and try things, as long as we take precautions to be safe. I believe my wife and I do a nice job of balancing each other’s tendencies so that my daughter can experience a childhood that is both fun and safe.
Tell us about the Trick-or-Treasure event you started in your community.
Taking my daughter trick-or-treating has to be the most nerve-racking experience of my life. I try to stand in front of her to screen the candy first, but people have given her peanut butter cups before I could say anything, or have tried to give them to her even when I’ve said no. Some people have even argued with me at their doorstep that food allergies aren’t that big of a deal.
I loved Halloween as a kid and didn’t want my daughter, or other kids like her, to not be able to enjoy it, so I partnered with local businesses to create Trick-or-Treasure. This event allows children to go trick-or-treating for candy that has been prescreened to avoid peanuts and tree nuts, as well as comic books, toys, and other fun trinkets. Last year, we had Star Wars characters take photos with the kids, a bowling alley gave out passes for free games, and a magician made balloon animals.
This Halloween will be the third year we’ll he holding Trick-or-Treasure and we are expanding the event beyond peanut/tree nut to screen the candy we give out for the eight most common allergens. I don’t want to see any child ever have to be excluded from a fun time because of a food allergy. Helping local kids be able to enjoy Halloween has probably been my biggest success as a peanut allergy dad.
Thanks to Tim for encouraging inclusion for kids with food allergies in his community and for sharing this great advice with us. Happy Father’s Day!