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Increasing Gluten-Free Independence

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Kids are Amazing!!

Kids are amazing. Kids are resilient. Kids are strong. And kids want to be independent. When it comes to kids with celiac, a major goal we should have for them is gluten-free independence.

When a child is diagnosed with celiac, I sometimes think it can be more difficult for the parents. NOT to say it isn’t difficult for kids. Not saying that at all.  Maybe I should say: It can be difficult in different ways. It is painful for parents to have to watch our kids struggle with something we cannot take away. We’d take on their pain or life challenge in a heartbeat.

Just as is the case with anyone at any age, the personal effect of having to be gluten free is individual. For some, it is a painful, sometimes debilitating struggle. For others, this dietary restriction is taken in stride. Most of us however, (young, old, and in-between) fit on the scale somewhere in the middle.  

As is natural, we do all we can to make this diet as doable and as easy as we can make it for our kids who need to be gluten free. And in the process, It can be easy to overlook the need to give the gift of gluten-free independence.  

Don't Assume

Just because you may think of this diet as difficult or challenging,
don’t automatically assume that your child will view it the same way.
Try to keep your negative emotions between adults and let your kids
figure out how they feel about it. I’ve heard of so many kids who
take complete ownership of their dietary needs.
They are often the positive role model the rest of us need.

Gluten-Free Independence Starts at Home

My oldest daughter was about two and a half years old. She was sitting happily in her car seat as we drove to or from somewhere. Another driver cut me off or did something that irritated me. Before I could say the words that I often used at such a time, I heard one of those ugly words come out of my daughter’s mouth. 

I was shocked!  But where did she learn it.? My sweet toddler was the perfect mirror that had me reflecting on my personal actions and the changes I need to make. 

Our kids’ learn from us. They listen to us. They watch us. And they follow our lead in attitude and action.  

How does your child view the way you handle this diet? 

How accepting is your child when it comes to his/her gluten-free needs? How accepting are you? 

Gluten-free independence comes more easily with acceptance and with the avoidance (and addition) of certain vocabulary.

Accepting isn't Pretending All is Fine

Everyone looks at this diagnosis from a different viewpoint, depending on the angle you started from. Some may see this as an amazing answer. Some may be broadsided with a diagnosis after no real health concerns. But whatever angle you approach it from, gluten-free eating (and preparing) doesn’t usually start out as an oh-this-is-easy thing. It takes time to get there.

As parents, we need to keep ourselves in check. Expressing those painful emotions in front of your child isn’t going to help him or her. Of course, ignoring the challenges isn’t fair either. What does your child hear you say? What is your body language and what are you expressing non-verbally? Let’s face it, our faces give us away more than our words sometimes—or often.

Are you saying, “This is HARD!”? Follow it up with, “But we can do this.”

Are you saying, “This tastes HORRIBLE!”? Follow it up with, “But we’ll find something you like.”

Are you saying, “This is so expensive!”? Well, please try to avoid that. We don’t need kids to feel guilty about their health requirements being a financial burden.

A Listening Ear and a Cooperative Effort

A child’s behavior often reflects what’s going on inside. When they act out it can be because they don’t know how to express what they are feeling. How often do we, as adults, have a bad day and just feel grumpy, not actually knowing what set it off? Kids have those days too. 

Having an understanding support system is important. It is empowering to know that someone cares and is there to comfort or straighten us up when we need it. Sometimes we just need to pay attention to what may have set those behaviors off. You might find out that there was a pizza party at school or a birthday celebration that they were left out of. 

Take the time to listen and then follow up with “Let’s figure this out together.” Respect their emotions. Allow that vent time. And then brainstorm ideas to figure out a solution. As parents, we want to fix things. But there aren’t always easy answers. Include your child in the problem solving process in order to increase their gluten-free independence. Solutions are more powerful when a child is part of the process. 

And who knows, your child’s solution may be one you’d never have come up with. It might be a whole lot more simple than what you’d like to do.  You might want to contact the school and have them avoid any type of food in the classroom. Of course, this isn’t always realistic, but we’d change the world for our kids if we could. Your child might be delighted to just be able to keep a pack of their favorite gluten-free cookies in the teacher’s cabinet for those unexpected treat days. 

Increase Gluten-Free Independence With a Simple Question

When one of my grandkids asked me a question recently, the older one said, “Don’t ask her, she just asks you a question back.”

This made me laugh. Those questions are just habit. It’s the early childhood educator in me. Increase problem solving skills. Increase efforts to help them come up with their own answers. 

I think of this when it comes to kids who need to be gluten free. We do our best to provide for their needs. We don’t want them to struggle. We want to pave this sometimes rocky road the best we can as parents. 

But by walking the path for our kids, we diminish opportunity for them to find their own direction. No matter how hard it is to have to watch, struggle is part of the growth process–a process that leads to independence. And isn’t that what we ultimately want for our kids?—independence.

When your child asks, “Is this gluten free?”—the instinct is to probably check it out yourself in order to provide an answer. What if, instead, you asked a question in return. “I don’t know, is it?” (Even if you know the answer.)

Of course, what follows will all depend on age. A 3-year-old isn’t going to be able to read the label. They can, however, learn to recognize the GF symbol (or some other identifying factor you may have provided).

If their reply is “yes” turn around and ask, “How do you know?” They might point out that it came from the gluten-free cabinet, or point to the label you put on the box, or say “because you let me eat it before.” Conversations are great!

Gluten-free independence requires increasing their accountability. 

Be Honest

Kids need to know they can trust us to be honest. Trust is empowering. An empowered person is an independent person.

Fact: “There will be times when your classmates will be eating something you cannot. What should we do about that?”  (Notice the “we.” Not, “how can I fix that for you.”)

Fact: “There will be parties with food you cannot eat. What are we going to do about that?”  *It is important to highlight the importance of the people. Unless the safety risks are just too high, avoiding an event just because of the food that cannot be eaten places the higher value on food. Friends, experiences, and social interactions are the main importance! Being unable to eat the food can stink sometimes, but this is a reality those of us with dietary restrictions need to come to terms with. We have opportunity to instill in our children a positive viewpoint–a view that puts people and social experiences ahead of food. It’s a process that starts at home. 

Fact: Food is important. Even if we cannot eat at an event, we still need to eat! Brainstorm ideas for preparation. 

Fact: “Family, friends and friends’ parents will offer food, telling you they made it gluten free.” This can be one of the most difficult things to handle. As we know, cross contamination is a big deal. How do we know the person who prepared the food prepared it safely? Discuss ways to handle this situation.

Dining Out

I like giving kids the voice to place their own order as the server rounds the table. For our kids with celiac, this an especially important part of developing that gluten-free independence. It will probably help if you scoped the restaurant out ahead of time. Be sure to take them somewhere you feel they can eat safely. 

But let your child place his order and state his needs to the server. By doing so, their comfort and their ability to clearly and accurately communicate these needs will just become more natural for them. Of course, you may need to fill in any missed gaps. And if they aren’t ready, please don’t force them to do something they are uncomfortable with. 

Support Group

Do you have a local celiac support group?—especially a kids’ group? There was a day when in-person support groups were more prevalent. The internet has taken their place in too many instances, unfortunately. I hope to start seeing more in-person groups return. It is comforting and empowering to be among others who face similar needs. If you don’t have a local group, maybe you can start one. I wish this was something available to all kids.

Being a Part of the Meal Prep Process

From coming up with meal ideas, to grocery shopping, and to the cooking, include your child. Again, this is important for ALL kids, whether they require a special diet or not. Even though eating is a daily requirement, the availability of drive thrus and heat and serve packaged food has diminished kitchen use. 

By “cooking” you certainly don’t need to prepare an 8-course meal. Let them scramble the eggs, follow the directions on a boxed cake mix, prepare a fresh salad, and find recipes to experiment with. Let your child help plan, shop and prepare. 

Gluten Free Independence

Life is one big learning opportunity. Each and every one of us can look back at something and say, “I could have done that better.”  But we can’t go back in time. We have to be OK with where we are now and look at ways we can move forward. 

When it comes to our kids, our ultimate goal is for them to be as independent as they can be. One step at a time. Each opportunity, each reinforcing word, each time we catch ourselves in order to avoid those words and phrases that are best left away from their ears, moves closer to building that independence. 

Your child, your family, and your routine is not identical to anyone else’s. Your process won’t be either. One step at a time. One day at a time. And lots of daily hugs. When you are in it together, you can do this.

Share A Story - Plant A Seed

Check out the Celiac Stories page for dozens of stories.
Be sure to request celiac tests before removing gluten from your diet.

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