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Parenting Traps

Life with allergies

How one family copes

By Katrina Avila Munichiello
December 13, 2009

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I was sitting in the back seat, terrified, as we raced to the hospital. My 18-month-old was sobbing, covered in hives. Then he began to projectile-vomit.

My husband and I had given our son peanut butter, and the reaction was immediate. Tests confirmed a peanut allergy. And a milk allergy. And an egg allergy.

For me, the emotional side has been much harder to cope with than the physical. One morning I gave my son the wrong bowl of cereal. “This soy milk tastes funny,” he said as hives appeared around his mouth. Shaking, I gave him a dose of Benadryl, as his doctor had instructed. He was fine almost instantly; I felt guilty for months.

The most challenging moments come when I need to respond to people’s comments, even well-intentioned ones, in front of my son, now 4. They wonder whether my diet during pregnancy, my son’s diet, or keeping things “too clean” caused his allergies. Science doesn’t have those answers yet, and I don’t need any more guilt, thanks. They ask if he will outgrow them. We don’t know, so we have focused on teaching him to live with them. Likewise, we don’t talk about people who “exaggerate” food allergies. Reactions can be unpredictable -- an episode of hives can be followed by anaphylaxis -- and he needs to take his food prohibitions seriously.

When people talk about how hard they imagine managing is, I shrug. It can be, but that can’t be our focus.

“As a parent, you are always modeling for your child,” says Jennifer LeBovidge, a psychologist in the allergy center at Children’s Hospital Boston. “If parents get emotionally charged, kids pick up on those cues.”

So every day I teach, but also I learn. I have asked my son how he feels about his allergies, and it’s clear he doesn’t think about them much. When I start feeling as if he’s missing out on certain things, I have to remind myself that those are my expectations, not his.

The good thing is, we are all new at this. I’ll keep learning, coping, and occasionally crying, but most of all, I hope that we are providing our son with the tools he needs to be healthy, both physically and emotionally.

Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Has anyone ever implied that you “caused” an illness your child suffered? How did you answer?