Food allergy tools when family members just don't get it
Updated: Jan 26
Family = love, right? So how can the people you love the most sometimes be the most difficult ones to convince that food allergies are truly life-threatening? If love is the glue that holds our relationships together, it is no wonder that we get incensed when we hear:
"Oh everyone is allergic to something these days."
"Peanut allergies weren't a thing when I was growing up."
"People need to stop being so picky with their choices."
"Just give him a little taste. He'll be fine."
"Well we aren't going to stop eating these foods around her."
"She'll outgrow it soon."
If words are fuel, then these triggering statements spark rage into a full-blown emotional fire. Words have power. Power can be productive or harmful. A simple phrase can create long-standing rifts in relationships, damage generational connections, rob your family of precious memories to be made, and leave behind an aftermath of confusion, anger, frustration, sadness and grief.
How can we move past such callous remarks and just 'pass the potatoes' at the next family gathering? How can the same person who orders a sweet personalized birthday gift be the same one who dismisses the dangerous foods that could kill a precious life? It doesn't make sense. The rift feels enormous and does not feel like love. It feels cold and isolating. But that is only a part of the story.
Our perspectives are our own. Our views are based on our own life experiences, peer groups, conversations, media we consume, education, and where we have invested our energy and attention. We are all wired differently. Our personalities are unique and our life experiences are uniquely ours too. The same is true for your loved one. Their life experiences are often not relatable, feeling worlds apart from your own. In their minds, they express unconditional love towards your child. They adore your child and want to protect and keep them safe.
When it comes to food allergy awareness and education, we need to accept that all of our start lines are different. This is the #1 step in acknowledging that there is room for new approaches to bridge communication gaps.
We all have different start lines.
If it's a teacher who is newer to food allergies or a sports coach who always celebrates with food after a win, you likely are already leading with grace. You expect that you will need to meet a person where they are, and that this may take a little bit of time. You invest in their education because you know it will ripple positively later.
The same is true with family members but we often reserve our 'best behavior' filters for those we don't know as well. We have zero patience for the spouse who is in denial or a grandparent who has never faced this struggle in their lives. It can be easy to forget that grace is still a virtue we can bring to family conversations.
Meet people where they are.
Education is a gradual process that takes patience. Since we all have different life experiences, it is impossible to assume that education will always be the first answer that gets someone to ‘change’ their view. Sometimes we need to ‘adjust our wavelength’ to get out of our own experiences and try to see the world from another view. Since there are also confirmation biases (people looking for evidence to support their beliefs), we each are operating in our own echo chambers. There are generally three tricky mindsets that we'll unpack for learning how to meet a person where they are at. The key is to refrain from using judgment once we identify the root cause together. It will pay off in keeping a relationship solid in the future.
We are wired for protection.
Most people do not encounter the basics of food allergy education unless their profession or life experience requires it. It is an invisible disability that goes unnoticed until it personally affects our lives.
With so many struggles in today's world it's easy to skim over most challenges unless they are directly relatable. If we learned about every struggle and medical condition that people face, we'd be studying new conditions for weeks on end. We would exhaust our limited energy reserves that already feel scarce each day.
Humans are biologically wired for protection. When our brains experience a threat, we go into 'fight or flight' mode. Our amygdala tries to keep us safe and does not allow room for processing rational thoughts or logical reasoning at the exact same time. Reasoning takes place in a different part of our brain - the frontal lobe. For many people, change can trigger fear. The same holds true for our loved ones whose behaviors we are asking to change.
So what is the root of the problem?
In the case where family members are not aligned on the severity of food allergies, they will usually fall into one of 3 mindsets:
Does not Know: These people do not directly or indirectly face food allergies as a struggle in their lives. Their sphere of influence does not interact with people who have food allergies so it is a topic that may invoke curiosity but not a solid foundation of knowledge. People may parrot what they hear in the press “Isn’t there a cure for peanut allergies?". Likely they are open to education if you proceed with empathy, humility and create a non-judgmental safe space.
ACTION STEP: These people are open to education, so inform them! Listen, acknowledge, validate where they are at. Then teach with empathy.
Does not Believe: When people have not experienced food allergy struggles directly or indirectly in their lives, they may need more proof or facts to better understand this condition. “We didn’t have these issues when we were kids” or “I find it hard to believe that a peanut could kill someone”. Even if you don't hear these comments directly, some people are wired to look for pragmatic evidence.
ACTION STEP: These people are looking for solid proof. Lean on cited facts, data, peer reviewed journals, research findings to engage in meaningful education.
Does not want to Change: These people's mindsets may take some time to shift. Outwardly you may hear more opinionated language that is triggering. They may discount the severity or have more overt judgments around food allergic people specifically. “People need to stop being so picky” or “I’m not going to stop packing peanut butter just because one kid can’t have it”. Being more opinionated can provoke tension in relationships but you can choose to diffuse with empathy. Remember, we are all wired to protect for threats. Our amygdala is our reactive, emotional center of our brain. When we are threatening to take away a routine or make them change, ‘fight or flight’ takes place, overtaking reasoning where our cortex processes cognition.
These people will be stubborn. Expect a few conversations and a marathon mentality. Ask yourself if the return on your energy is worth it. If it's a close relationship, the answer is probably yes. These people may struggle with change and are afraid of something different that breaks their routine or challenges their ‘truth’. They may find comfort in traditions and consistency.
ACTION STEP: First acknowledge their feelings and validate their beliefs. This may take a few conversations and attempts. Continue to diffuse any tension to progress forward. Ask open ended questions (without judgment) to understand where you are starting at. For example you could say,“I grew up knowing one person with food allergies but it was never really a thing. Now the number of people who experience food allergy is climbing. What have your experiences been with food allergies?”
Feel, Felt, Found: Here is another way to diffuse the most stubborn individuals. This is a sales technique I learned to overcome objections that people express. It taps into a psychological need that as humans we want to feel heard, understood and validated. It is an effective tool for food allergies that can diffuse many contentious points of view and move towards productive alignment. Here’s how it can work after people make incorrect statements, judgments or even offensive comments about food allergies.
Example: “I used to feel that people were being too picky as well. Many people I know felt that way. But then I found out about the severity of reactions when X person developed hives and struggled with breathing. I realized that it’s a lot easier for me to just pack a ham sandwich than to have that person struggle to breathe.”
Diffuse the conversation with empathy and you will align quicker with the other person.
Example: "I definitely understand how you feel. Before food allergies showed up in my life, I felt similarly and so many of us did. What I’ve found is that by learning ways to keep food allergic safe, I can learn how to become an ally, advocate and protect those important to me."
Example: "I hear you and understand how you feel. I felt the same way before it showed up in our lives. I found that X person’s safety becomes the priority and I had a lot to learn. So now I am trying to get better about (insert skills: pre-planning, reading labels, preparing food safely, understanding cross-contact, etc)."
Pack your patience.
Even when people know they may need education, they may not fully believe the severity for various reasons. And even if they are educated, they may not want to change. These blocks take time to remove. Rather than exhaust yourself with an endless dismal doom loop that ultimately pulls you into negativity, stop and reframe your own expectations and timeline.
Changing a mindset may take several attempts and you will need to decide the level of investment based on the relationship. Only you know the return on your energy and if the payoff will be worthwhile short-term and longer term. If it's a family member you see frequently then it's worth your energy. Ideally if a person starts at a stubborn state, they will gradually open up and move towards needing facts and finally be open to more education. Patience is a must and you are investing in safety, alignment of values and relationships. Reset your own expectations if you think it will take one or two conversations.
Mistakes are part of learning.
Mistakes will happen and we learn from them. Reading ingredient labels, meal planning for events, and even remembering to ask ahead of time are all skills that develop with practice. Start with a frame of mind that this is one of a handful of conversations necessary. It may feel you are already overwhelmed and do not have time to explain food allergies. Don't lose your cool - keep your eye on the end goal of keeping your child safe.
Create a safe space.
You may be frustrated with the answers and objections you hear but remember, everyone has to start somewhere. People will not let go of their objection if they do not feel heard and understood first. Acknowledge that you hear their thoughts and then once they trust you have validated where they are coming from, they can be more open to letting go. Lead with humility, empathy, and grace. This is a gradual process. Do not mirror frustration with more frustration. When people feel threatened, our amygdala (emotional part of brain) can overtake our cortex where we conduct reasoning. The 'fight or flight' response kicks in when we feel threatened (our ideologies, beliefs, routines, traditions). These reactions can be a first response that is harmful, triggering combative words that damage relationships. Allow space to forgive and try again.
Practice your communication scripts.
Use and reuse conversation scripts to frame up the situation with an inclusive approach. Remember, empathy is a powerful tool and practicing these will make the conversation more approachable. Practice writing out your approach if it helps. Or you may even want to email your loved one to provide an edited approach that allows both parties some space to process what is sent and received.
Here is one more conversation example for you to adapt to your own words and style.
“I too was surprised at how much of this topic I did not understand. These were not issues that people faced as often 30+ years ago. Since so many people are affected with life-threatening conditions, I have started to learn more about how to keep people safe and how to treat in case of an emergency."
Just to summarize, once you identify which of the 3 mindsets your 'tricky' family member falls into, then remember these important takeaways:
1. We all have different start lines.
2. Meet people where they are.
3. We are wired for protection.
4. Identify the root of the problem (does not know, believe or want to change).
5. Feel, felt, found as a communication tool.
6. Pack your patience.
7. Mistakes are part of learning.
8. Create a safe space.
9. Lead with empathy, humility and grace.
10. Practice your communication scripts.
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Image credit: Anete Lusina