When A Child Begins to Understand Food Allergies

We were at my sister’s house for dinner. My nephew asked for a glass of chocolate milk. So my son, who is allergic to milk, asked for one as well. Before we could respond, my three year old nephew said this to my two-and-a-half year old son.

“You can’t have milk. It will make you sick.”

My sister and I looked at each other with proud parent eyes. After two years of us frantically making sure that the two boys – just eight months apart – didn’t switch sippy cups, her son understood that there were certain foods my son couldn’t have.

And then the moment was gone. My nephew kept repeating himself to the point of toddler taunting. My son replied “don’t talk to me like that,” which is what he says when he’s told something he doesn’t want to hear, usually when he’s being reprimanded, only in this case it was appropriate and a little bit disheartening too.

Up until this incident we haven’t really explained to our son that he has food allergies. We didn’t think he understood. We gave him a book about food allergies this Christmas but to him it was just about a bunch of bugs. Whenever he asks for a food he’s allergic to, we reply “it’ll make your tummy hurt.” And so far, that’s been sufficient, until now.

The morning after the above incident, our very first conversation included this exchange:

Him: “Mommy, B said I couldn’t have milk. It will make me sick.”

Me: “Yes, that’s right.”

Him: “I told him don’t talk to me like that.”

Me: “Yes, you did…”

Him: (Interrupts me) “I not sick.”

Me: “No, honey, you’re not sick. But milk will make you sick. It makes your tummy hurt.”

Him: “My tummy not hurt. My milk is in the fridge.”

Me: “Yes but the milk B drinks is a different kind and will make your tummy hurt.”

And then he looked at me confused about the difference between cow’s milk and soy milk and I realized we’ve arrived at the gray area I’ve been dreading. The place where he’s starting to understand but doesn’t quite get that there are different kinds of milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cookies, cakes, pancakes – all the “normal” things we feed him made without the foods he’s allergic to.

I tried turning our morning conversation into a teaching moment by reading the food allergy book to him but he wanted nothing to do with the bugs, or his food allergies for that matter. So, I’ll just try to learn from it instead.

When did your child begin to understand food allergies? How did you explain it?

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