Q&A: dealing with other's lack of concern for your child's allergies

Megan writes:

"I have a four year old and an (almost) one year old. The older one has tested positive for a peanut allergy, and we believe the younger one may have it as well.  This took us by surprise as neither my husband or myself, or anyone in our families have this allergy.  Before we found out when he was 18 months old, I knew virtually nothing about allergies.

At preschool, playgroups, park and rec classes, playdates…any time my son is around anyone else and especially if I leave him in the care of others, I am constantly explaining and reminding other parents and teachers about this. I must always leave an epi-pen with him in case of a potentially lethal reaction.  Many moms (and dads) are sympathetic and helpful and honestly do their best to help.  The teachers at the school my son attends have been fantastic.

However, there are some parents who don’t seem to get it, no matter how much I try.  They bring trail-mix to playgroups when they know we will be there.  They allow their children to wander at a playdate after having eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without washing their hands.   They send things to school for snack that have peanuts listed as an ingredient. These are people who know he has an allergy! 

Now Moxie, I know that this is primarily my job, and I am willing to police his eating as much as possible.  But, it would make it a lot easier if I could somehow get these parents to understand that, for my son, the peanut butter that is on their child’s hands as they swing could mean death for my son if he has a turn on the swing next.

Also, I have had to approach strangers at the park to ask them to please make sure that all the peanut butter is cleaned off their child before they send them out to play. I feel strange doing this, but luckily so far people have been very nice about it.

So, my question is:  How do I communicate to people how  important this is?  What can I say to them to make it sink in?  To  your readers out there whose kids do not have an allergy, if you were approached by a woman at the park with this sort of thing, what would you want her to say?"

I think this is a tough situation, and a tough question, but I think it's an issue that's going to affect all parents at some point. Every one of us is going to have to deal with allergies (especially nut allergies), whether it's our own kid or one of our kid's friends or classmates.

So, before I get to my answer, I'd like everyone to click over and look at the instructions for how to use an epi-pen. If a child is going into anaphylactic shock from ingesting nuts or some other allergen, you may be the only adult present, so you need to know how to use one. It could mean the difference between life and death for someone's child.

Did you click over? Seriously, do it now, please. I can't be the only one who thought you were supposed to plunge it into the heart like they did in the movie "Pulp Fiction." (Update: Be sure to read these helpful tips about the EpiPen. Yikes.)

Now, to me this is an issue of public health. If anyone in the school or playgroup has a life-threatening allergy to a substance, the group as a whole needs to make rules limiting the use of that substance. And everyone needs to help police.

I'd like to think that some of these parents don't realize how serious a nut allergy is. They may think it means that if your child eats nuts he'll get hives or a rash. They may not realize it closes off his airway and can kill him by suffocating him. I really hope they don't know how serious it is. Because if they do know and they still send snack with nuts or bring trail mix to playgroup, it's the equivalent of bringing a big bag full of candies made out of rat poison.

Yes, you have to be the main advocate for your son, but the other members of your community should take responsibility, too. Ask the director of your son's school and his teachers to make sure all parents know they can't bring snacks with nuts in them. (It may also be a liability issue for them, so I'm sure they'll take it seriously.) Any snack with nuts need to be sent back home immediately. They could even institute a policy of having the kids all wash their hands as soon as they get to school to make sure there are no traces of peanut butter left. (This will also make sure the kids themselves get in the habit of checking to be sure they're not nut carriers.)

At playgroup, do you have a friend who gets how serious the nut issue is? Maybe she will be the watchdog on your behalf. (If you were in my playgroup I'd rip anyone who brought trail mix a new one.) If more than one person is saying it (and especially someone who has no personal stake in it), then people start to listen and pay attention. Or, you could just start a new playgroup with the parents who get it.

My only problem is with the playground issue. It's just not going to be logistically possible to make sure it's an allergen-free zone. That doesn't mean you don't have to try, but I don't think you can lock down a playground the same way you can lock down a school or private property. I think your best bet is going to be to make sure you wipe down any equipment your son is going to play on. You can also approach the parents of any kids your so is playing with to ask if they've eaten any nuts and to ask if they'd mind washing hands and faces if they have. Yes, some parents will be offended, but I'm betting most of them will be sympathetic and possibly even sheepish that they didn't think of it themselves. Readers? How would you react?

The public space issue is one that will continue to plague you, although my guess is that it will get slightly easier when your son gets older and can be more of an advocate for himself.

I really think most people just simply don't know how life-threatening nut allergies can be. That means it's incumbent on all of us to keep educating so people don't think peanut butter crackers are good snacks for preschool. We love peanut butter in my house. I'd guess we probably go through a jar or two a week. I've been absolutely anal about not having any at school, but the playground issue honestly never occurred to me. We're going to have to insititute an "only on the house and then wash your hands and face with soap" policy about peanut butter. Maybe everyone reading this will do that, too.

If you have a peanut (or any other serious) allergy, please let everyone around you know. It could be the difference between life and death.