Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Navigating Birthday Parties


Birthday Parties and the thought of upcoming Christmas parties used to be a source of great stress for us with a child with multiple food allergies. Our son was diagnosed at 9 months of age, of being at risk of anaphylaxis to 8 out of the top 9 food allergens. It basically meant he was (and more or less still is) only allowed to eat food that we have prepared for him. Although a plate of potato crisps might be safe for him, the risk of cross contamination from other hands and foods is too high. Whenever we received a party invitation, I felt the stress and anxiety rise within me. While most people are happy to be included in the party list, I felt relief when our son didn't come running to me with a precious slip of colourful paper.
 

Looking back, I think we attended far too many birthday parties and caused unnecessary stress on ourselves. I didn't want to miss out, nor did I want my kids to miss out. But I am also realising that our society wants to celebrate more extravagantly each year, and this extravagance feeds itself in a viscous cycle. Birthday parties look more and more like weddings, with themes and colour schemes. What are we celebrating anyway? The child or the party centre, the cake, or the fancy plates?

Birthday Parties are one aspect of life - not the be all and end all. There are some parties that are just too risky - due to the food available, due to the type of party, due to the people attending the party (sad, but true). On the other hand, there are some parties that can be manageable. If they have to miss a party, life will go on. Don't be afraid of saying NO to a party invite. If you're new to the allergy game, or new to the party scene, then start small. Each successful event will give you confidence for the next one. Overly stressful parties will give you wisdom and experience for the next invitation.

It's helpful to understand what aspects are causing the stress, and in this way work out if things can be managed safely, whether this is an issue that will pass, or whether the situation is worth the level of risk.

THE SAFE FOOD
Things that added to that stress was that EVERYTHING had to be home made in the early days since his allergies were too many to count. As he's gotten older, we have found a number of store bought snacks that he can take to parties. Provided I have a home made cupcake in the freezer, and can manage to put together a lunch for the lunch time parties, the rest is easy. We keep a pantry stocked with small packets of potato crisps/popcorn, small packets of lollies, individually wrapped dried fruit and small packets of chocolate. I have found decorating the cupcakes very simple by using premade fondant icing. Another alternative for cupcakes is simply to squash a few of his favourite lollies on top (Mentos, gummy bears, snakes... not all at once though). I usually pack some fresh fruit too of course to have some balance of healthy in there.

THE ENVIRONMENT/PEOPLE
Only you can make this judegement call. For us, a smaller party is better. If there are so many people there, I often think our presence is not going to make much difference to things and we will either attend for a short period only, or keep my children home. If you think about the stress load of a large party - I can handle a lot of stress for a short period. However, a party that goes for hours where I need to be in arm's reach of my two children might not be so enjoyable or manageable.

THE AGE OF THE CHILDREN

As our son has gotten older and understands more about his allergies, birthday parties are getting easier. He knows not to touch other food. He knows we always bring our own food. He knows he can sing the song, but can't touch the cake. As he's gotten older, he does ask to try things a bit more. He will ask if he can have the Frozen Fanta/Coke. He will ask if he can try any of the lollies in the lolly bag. Our general rule is if it doesn't have an, ingredient list, it is a NO. Even if he has eaten it before - no label, means it's NOT SAFE to eat. I have begun approaching some establishments to find out more information about certain foods, but I make careful choices based on the likelihood of cross contamination. Nothing would spoil a party like having to call an ambulance - so we balance out the risk, and choose to be very very safe. This means he might not get to eat all he wants, but he will be able to enjoy the time with his friends.

FEELING DIFFERENT
If your child has food allergies, they are different. Our children need to learn that they are different, but that they are also very similar in other ways. This is a page out of our book Allergy Fun. Teaching our children about their specific allergies is so important. Helping them understand the situation and the risks, helps them to accept their differences. Although we talk a lot about allergies in our family, we also talk a lot about... Pokemon and Monster Trucks (at the moment). We also spend a lot of time talking about other important aspects of life like kindness, generosity, honesty, joy... you get the idea. As parents, we need to be wise and sensitive about how many parties we attend where our children really are different. I don't feel it is fair on a child to feel they are the odd one out every weekend, let alone several times in one weekend. Limit the number of parties, depending on how your child copes with feeling different, and add in other events (like plays in the park, swims at the pool, rides on the bike etc) to show them just how great their life is.




Here are some more helpful tips:
- We always bring our own food and drink. We don't try to make it super healthy, but we do try and have a bit of a mix to even out the sugar overlad. It's not fair to expect your child to eat carrot sticks when everyone else is eating chocolate.
- I always have a few extra treats in my bag.
- Bring wipes and extra wipes - be generous in handing these around
- Our son has to sit when eating - no running around

If you have found these tips helpful, there will be even more practical information shared on how to manage food allergies in our workshop being hosted by Upwey South Primary School, on 10th Nov. Click here to find out more details.



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