A while back, I saw a question posed in a food allergy forum about discipline. The person was asking if food allergy parents ever have a hard time disciplining their food-allergic child. She said “he already goes through so much that I have a hard time disciplining him.” My reply to this woman was that I had never seen the two as connected. I would discipline my child for inappropriate behaviors the same as I would any other child. The fact that he has it a little harder when it comes to food doesn’t seem to have any bearing on his behavior in other areas.
Since that time, my stance on discipline in general has not changed. However, I have encountered a handful of situations in which food allergies have undermined authority. I’m sure other food allergy parents can sympathize with one or more of these situations.
I’m a big fan of natural consequences. If you don’t get your homework done or forget to bring it with you to school, you get to suffer whatever consequence your teacher has for that missing homework. I’m not going to drive 20 minutes out of my way to make sure I bring it to you if you were the one who forgot it.
But this discipline tactic erodes when it comes to food. If my child had no food allergies and he forgot his lunch box, I would be the first one to jump in and say “I hope you like whatever the school has for hot lunch today!” But as a food allergy parent, I can’t use that tactic. That hot lunch hasn’t been scrutinized by me for ingredients and allergens, so I don’t know whether it is safe (or perhaps the reason I packed a lunch is because I know it isn’t safe.) And kids don’t function well on an empty stomach, so doing without isn’t a very good option either. Therefore as a food allergy parent I have no choice but to turn around, drive home, and bring back the dang lunch box.
Who amongst us has the rule that if you don’t finish dinner, you don’t get dessert? It’s fairly common and one that we employ in our house. In fact, we go a bit further. I don’t push my kids to eat more food than they can handle. My requirement if they want to finish dinner with food still on their plate is that they must finish their veggies. However, if they want dessert, they have to clean their plate unless they can make a compelling argument that we served them way too much (which does happen on occasion.)
But sometimes the food allergies get in the way of this tactic.
For one, we were in a somewhat unique situation when Zax was in a food allergy study where he had to consume baked egg every day. I tried to minimize using his egg dose in dessert–I preferred to serve it to him for breakfast or as a component of dinner–but sometimes the only way I could fit it into the day’s meal schedule was to have it be dessert. In those cases, I had no choice but to allow Zax to eat his dessert, even when dinner was largely untouched. I didn’t like having to do that, but eating baked egg was (and still is) an important food allergy therapy that has been steadily decreasing the severity of his egg allergy.
Even without the stringent requirements of a study, I’m sure other food allergy parents have encountered situations like this. Perhaps siblings or classmates were eating a special dessert that your child could not share, and you promised to make up for it at dessert time. When dessert finally rolls around, you’ll have to balance that promise with your normal dinnertime rules.
Not Punishing Risk Taking
I’ve blogged before about the importance of letting kids know that they won’t get into trouble for having an allergic reaction–even if it was their fault. This is an important trust to maintain, as the alternative could lead to kids hiding a dangerous reaction. We don’t want kids to hide reactions–while the odds are in their favor, the end result could still be death. So it’s important to stress that your child will not get in trouble for having a reaction, even if a risky behavior caused it.
This can send a mixed message though, as your kids probably expect to get in trouble for risky behaviors. Depending on how their brains are developing, they may see this as permission (or at least, the lack of a roadblock) to engage in risky behaviors.
Kids of an age to be tempted by this probably evaluate risk differently than you do. So as you assure them that they won’t get in trouble for having a reaction even if it was their fault (and honestly answer the question “even if I eat it on purpose?” with “yes, even then”), remind them also that intentionally eating something that causes a reaction will carry its own consequence–the reaction itself, and discomfort, medications, possible near-death experience, and/or a hospital stay. And remind them that even if their recent reactions have been mild, the next reaction could be way worse than any punishment you could dole out. In short, do your best to convince them that they need to report every reaction and get treatment, without encouraging the risks.
Most of us hand out rewards or consolation prizes for getting through difficult medical procedures. A child with food allergies will likely get poked and/or subjected to uncomfortable conditions far more often than a sibling without health conditions. When compared side-by-side, non-allergic siblings may feel this is unfair. They’re not paying attention to the scope of discomfort their sibling goes through, so they feel slighted. On the other hand, giving the same prize to the sibling who didn’t undergo any procedures can diminished the prize.
Parenting is hard no matter what, and there’s no doubt that having children with additional medical needs makes it harder. What discipline issues have you encountered regarding food allergies?