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Sunday, January 28, 2007

It Takes A Village - School Psychologist

The It Takes A Village series is focused on how people in the community are involved in the support of allergic children, especially those with anaphylaxis. This article is an interview with a school psychologist named Nadine O'Reilly, M.A., C.S.P. Nadine is a practicing school psychologist and also holds the position of Coordinator of Special Services within a large public school district in northern New Jersey (complete bio).

Nadine spent years counseling parents on how to manage their child's allergy. Though she empathized with the parents of food allergic children, it is difficult if not impossible to truly identify with what parents go through unless you are the parent of a food allergic child yourself.

Well that's exactly what happened.

A few years ago she discovered that her son has anaphylaxis to peanuts. Unfortunately in order to discover the anaphylaxis she also had to go through an experience as frightening as our Boxing Day emergency. She notes below that it was very strange when the tables were turned and all of a sudden she had to put her own advice into action. Here is an excerpt from her homepage:

"When I found out that my son had a peanut allergy, I thought it was the end of the world. My imagination went into overdrive: A life filled with fear; no more invitations to birthday parties for my precious son; no more dining out for my family; sneers from others to the words “peanut allergy…” Every bad thing I could think of that would be associated to my son being the “peanut allergy kid” came to my mind."

I was struck by this. Despite her years of education and experience, nothing prepared Nadine for the experience of dealing with anaphylaxis in her own child. I suspect that this experience has made Nadine even stronger and more empathetic in her role as school psychologist.

The peanut section of Nadine's website displays an impressive combination of first-hand parental perspective and objective clinical advice. The site's heightened level of humanity makes it even more approachable for parents. I would encourage the parents of a food allergic child to read the relevant section of her site as she covers much more than just peanuts.

Here is the interview with NoPeanuts:

The initial shock of an anaphylactic episode is incredible. The realization that your child has a life-threatening allergy is part frightening, part surreal and part heart-breaking. In our case we coped by meeting it head on and doing as much research as we could. This blog is also a great outlet. What is your advice to parents that might be within 24 hours of first discovering such a severe allergy in their loved one?

Wow, I'd like to say something "clinically correct," but what instinctively comes to mind is "Hug your child tightly and breathe..." Seriously, give thanks your child is alive and pat yourself strongly on the back for getting through the experience in one piece. 24 hours from the episode isn't even going to take you into the Specialist's office, so refrain from doing any serious research until a Board-certified Allergist has clearly defined your child's condition and pointed you in the right direction. And definitely do begin educating your child about what happened in the most age-appropriate manner possible (begin by congratulating her on how well she handled herself).

Today we had our first case of having to inform an Instructor that our child was severely allergic to peanuts. What is your advice to parents that have to do this for the first time, given that it's quite uncomfortable to ask for a 'peanut ban'?

As a school psychologist, I've been trained to hold parent meetings that will inevitably touch upon controversial information. What I wasn't prepared for was to have the tables turned and be the parent advocating for her child! I have a deep respect for parent advocates now; it's not easy.

Go to chat forums and ask parents in similar situations how they've dealt with their first notification meetings, and ask for specific statements that were made that others might be able to recall. Then, knowing how predictable humans are ;), practice what you'll say when you're faced with similar scenarios. But please, don't go in expecting a confrontation unless you really want one - defensiveness will get you nowhere. And you'll be amazed
at how cooperative some districts can be. Food allergies are far more prevalent of late. It's unlikely you'll have to pave new ground.

Role-playing is an awesome tool. Practice what you'll say ahead of time while looking into a mirror and speaking aloud. Now, I know that sounds ridiculous, but consider how we really don't see ourselves the way in which others see us. Know yourself before you go into a potentially stressful situation.

How common is it for parents of other children to exclude children with allergies from birthday parties, etc? How should parents deal with that scenario?

I wish I had an answer for that one. I know my son's been excluded from one, and it broke my heart. Depending on your child's age, you might want to come up with creative ways to make them feel better. I'm not an advocate of fibbing, but I know that if I had taken a "truth only" approach the day my son felt left out, I would have really hurt and confused him more (concepts such as "ignorance" might be above a toddler). My advice would be to send out a friendly memo to parents at the beginning of the school year (or as soon as you learn of the allergy). Introduce yourself and your child, and provide a phone number so others can contact you with any questions. In that memo, mention that you're reaching out with this information so that when birthday parties/play dates come around, others know that you are there to help and you'll be happy to provide your son/daughter with his/her own food, and that you'll be happy to chaperon. Who can resist such an offer?

Obviously we are still fairly new to this ourselves but what is your advice to us as parents who are but three weeks into dealing with
this allergy and still do not officially know what we are up against?

I remember the first week my son went back to school: I pictured him in a minefield within which he'd dodge classmate after classmate with peanut-butter-smudged hands reaching out to hug him. :) But reality is, it's not as scary as it's made out to be. Frankly, I feel for parents of children with milk, egg, and/or insect allergies! And my hat's off to parents of children with multiple food allergies. Wow.

I guess the key is in teaching your child to self-advocate. If your daughter knows not to touch anyone else's food, and to eat from her own plate (I'm quoting from "Peter" here ;), as well as how to recognize symptoms of an allergic reaction, she'll be absolutely fine. It's going to be just fine, you'll see.

What are your thoughts on having an anonymous blog versus us showing our names? You have names and photos of your (beautiful) son on your site which makes it more personal. Have you encountered any issues or developed any concerns with having that personal information out there?

Not an unreasonable concern at all! Funny...with me being a psychologist, and my husband a police officer, you'd think we'd be extra paranoid! But I think a simple Google search will bring up a newspaper article with images of us anyway, so there's no fighting the Internet. Even if I wanted anonymity, I couldn't have it after publishing a children's book on food allergies. It's a very personal choice, I guess.


The Cookbook Junkie said...

I actually find it slightly disturbing that she counselled parents of child with food allergies for years without really 'getting it'. I don't expect anyone who doesn't deal with this personally to totally get it but you would think that someone who 'spent years counseling parents on how to manage their child's allergy' would not be just as blindsided as the rest of us.

NoPeanuts said...

The one thing that I have learned through the early stages of our journey is that it is very difficult to make assumptions about how things affect others.

I think it would be entirely different to work with the children of others and help them manage their allergy vs having your own child go into a severe anaphylactic reaction to a food item.

They are two different things. If you read Nadine's website then I think it is clear that she is balanced and empathetic in her approach to helping others.