Empowering Kids on Special Diets Part 4: On Their Own

You can't keep them on a short leash forever

You can't keep them on a short leash forever

Keeping your kids safe when they have a special diet can seem like a full time job. It can be tempting to maintain tight control over their diet, and to never let them out of your sight. You never know when you might need to jump in front of a well-meaning friend, teacher, or even stranger who offers food, and you don’t want your child to make mistakes, or worse, cheat on the diet and get sick again.

But hovering over our kids and watching every morsel that goes into their mouths only works when they are at a very young developmental stage. In the long term, it doesn’t make them safe. To the contrary, I believe it sets them up for failure.

Remember, these are the things we are hoping to give our kids so they can successfully adjust to their special diets:

  • Belief that their diet will keep them healthy or has the potential to make them feel better
  • Knowledge of they need to do to stay safe and stick to the diet
  • Control over what, when, and how they eat
  • Bonus: Food they like to eat!

We’ve already talked about giving our kids the knowledge they need to understand their diet and believe it can help them. We’ve made it easy for them to stay safe by keeping foods they can eat on hand and clearly labeling them. We’ve talked to the other adults in our kids’ lives, and let them know how they can help. But it’s not enough.

Have Your Child’s Back

My kids know I'm on their side

My kids know I'm on their side

If you want your children to be able to stand up for themselves, they need to know you are on their side. Every time my son has been glutened at a camp or class, it has been because the instructor did not understand that as a child, he had the right to decide whether he was safe or not.

Our kids need to know that:

  • They can say “NO” to an authority figure, and they won’t get in trouble at home for it.
  • You value their safety over good manners.
  • It is ultimately their own responsibility to make sure they are safe – the people around them might not know how or have it as a priority.

Next, tell the adults in your children’s lives that your kids have the right to say no. Voice your trust in your kids, and let your kids hear it. You probably don’t want to do this in front of their classmates, though. That could embarrass your kids. People in your children’s lives need to know that while your children don’t always know if a situation is safe, if they feel unsafe, that feeling must be respected.

Back your child up on small things. It doesn’t have to be about their diet. Give them the experience of speaking up, and having you be on their side.

Your children will encounter people who you haven’t had a chance to talk to, or who just don’t believe the diet matters. Your kids need to know that if they get in trouble, they can count on you to be on their side. There will be consequences for the adults in their lives who undermine their safety.

Handing Over Responsibility

Depending on your children’s developmental ages, handing over control will look different. Here is how I see the progression working.


In the same way that you would teach them not to get burned by a fire or hit by a car, teach your children to only accept food from trusted people in their lives and specific containers. If your child has a memory of symptoms, that can help. Associate the foods they can’t have with their descriptions of those symptoms, whenever they see them.

Teach them to say “No, thank you” automatically whenever someone other than you and the people you trust offer food. This is perfect for toddlers, who love to say no!

Role play with them by using their toys and dolls to act out keeping themselves safe.

If your children are attending a pre-school at this stage, go with them for a time. A letter, phone call, and meeting with the teacher is not enough in most cases. Attending with your child will give you a chance to:

  • Understand the inhearant safety of the setting.
  • Show the teacher and aides how to keep your child safe.
  • Protect your child while the teacher learns and the classroom is updated to meet your child’s needs.

Try to stay in the background as much as possible. Give your child the chance to refuse unsafe foods and situations before jumping in. Once you feel confident in the situation, you can let go of the control.

Little Kids

Teach your child about their diet and what makes a food safe. Give them lots of practice at guessing whether a situation is safe or not, and coming up with solutions. Help them identify foods that will be safe in most situations.

Include them in preparing meals and choosing foods at the store. The more involved they are, the better they will become at protecting themselves.

Give your child a few key phrases to use when in an unsafe situation. Some ideas are:

  • No, thank you.
  • To stay safe, I only eat food from home.
  • This is unsafe for me.
  • My parents told me this is unsafe. Please call them to make sure.

For each new classroom, you’ll want to go through the same process as outlined for preschoolers. This is also a great age for role playing, since kids this age normally play that way with their friends.

Role play with your child, in different situations that could come up. Here are a few common ones:

  • All the kids are going to eat, and the teacher says “washing” with hand sanitizer will “kill” the gluten or allergen.
  • The table hasn’t been wiped down.
  • Another kid wants to trade lunches.
  • The teacher assigns seating at lunch, and won’t let your child move to a seat away from allergens.
  • An activity is unsafe (for example, a celiac kid shouldn’t do crafts with macaroni, be in the room while someone bakes with flour, or use play-dough).
  • Grandma offers unsafe treats and says “just a little” won’t hurt.


Kid1 leaving for a week at camp with all her own food

Kid1 leaving for a week at camp with all her own food

Kids at this age are often mature enough to assess a situation’s safety all by themselves. But they are still often powerless when confronted with authority figures. Even though you won’t be going and sitting in their class-rooms, be very, very clear with teachers and administrators about the importance of supporting your children’s diet.

Also, let them know that you are counting on them to keep you aware of issues that may be coming up. If other kids are pressuring them, or if your child is not actually eating their own lunch, you’ll want someone who can tell you these things!

More often, though, kids this age still care more about feeling good than impressing their friends. They’re also starting to learn to assert their independence. The more trust you place in them, the more they will try to live up to the expectations. The more of a power struggle the diet is, the more likely they are to reject it.

Ask your tweens what works for them and doesn’t work for them. Empathize with them about the hard aspects. Help step them through the process of figuring out their own solutions to the challenges they are facing. When they have come up with ideas, help them make their solutions happen.


The thing about teens is that they’ll be adults before you know it, but many of them think they’re already grown up! They still need your support and guidance, but they also want to be treated as if they don’t need it at all.

They’re also more likely to take risks and to go along with the crowd. On top of this, many people who have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity experience a “honeymoon” phase at this age, where their reactions seem to decrease or go away entirely. A teen who really wants to fit in, and doesn’t feel bad from going off the diet will have a much harder time sticking to it!

Here are some ways to encourage your teens to stay safe:

  • Provide behind-the-scenes support by making sure they have access to all the safe food they need. Ravenous appetites can inspire cheating.
  • Play the host. Teens will find ways to hang out together. If it happens at your house, with your food, your teens can easily stick to their diet without looking different.
  • Give them access to actual scientific research. They want to be able to make up their own minds about things. Give them the tools, resources, and space to do so.
  • Continue to communicate with teachers, councilors, and other leaders in your teens’ life. Give your teens the option of participating in educating the authority figures in their lives as well. The more they participate in the process, the better.
  • Let them make you the bad guy. When confronted with pressure on any side, they can say it’s all your fault they aren’t going along with the crowd.

When You Can’t Trust Them

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it just doesn’t work. I’ve heard from parents whose kids throw their lunch away every day and sneak other foods, sometimes even ending up in the hospital over it.

Small children who are not staying safe probably just need more supervision and guidance. But that only lasts so long. As parents, we are responsible to our children, and responsible for their medical care. It can be heartbreaking to watch your children make self-destructive choices, and financially devastating to deal with the resulting medical bills.

There needs to be a system of accountability in place, and you may take some steps that remove access to poor choices. This doesn’t mean you’ll perfectly control the situation. It does mean you will lovingly show that you can not condone or support self-destructive behavior, or choices that negatively impact your well-being.

The truth is, we all ultimately have responsibility for our own health. As parents, we need to recognize that is true for our children as they grow. The better job we do of preparing them to make good choices for themselves, the more likely they are to stay safe.

Some may go through a period of testing their diagnosis, testing you, and testing their own bodies. Hopefully the damage done during that time is not too great, and they will learn for themselves why sticking to their special diet matters.

Here’s a list of the posts in this series:

This post is part of Fat Tuesday, Slightly Indulgent Tuesday, Hearth & Soul Blog Hop, Traditional Tuesdays, Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways, Gluten Free Wednesdays, Allergy Free Wednesdays, Healthy 2 Day Wednesdays, Real Food Wednesday, Full Plate Thursday, Simple Lives Thursday, Fight Back Friday, Freaky Friday, Fresh Bites Friday, Lunchbox Love, Seasonal Celebration.

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