The Other Sibling: How Peanut Allergies Affect the Entire Family

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Peanut allergies in the home affect the entire household every minute. While each family determines their own “food comfort level policy” to best fit their needs, all families take peanut allergies very seriously. Inevitably, all members in the family household are affected significantly. 

As parents care for their babies or guide their teenagers with food allergies, each day there is an acute focus in and out of the home surrounding meal preparation, safe and unsafe food exposure and availability, and preparing for the worst case scenario. This often becomes a part of the household conversation and each family member has their role as developmentally appropriate. At three years old, my son tells other adults that his one year old brother is allergic to dairy, eggs, and peanuts (although I am not sure he knows what dairy means…)

Because there is typically hyper-focus on the child with the food allergy, we sometimes forget to realize the social and emotional ramifications this may have on the sibling without the allergy. These siblings may have a range of justifiable feelings: compassion, guilt, frustration, sympathy, worry, empowerment, curiosity, pride, exclusion, jealousy, annoyance, superiority, sadness, fear, etc. All of these feelings are normal.

Adding to your already full (nut-free) plate of priorities, it is important to take time to check in with the other sibling, providing undivided attention. In a one-on-one setting, ask your child how they feel, and acknowledge these feelings. Cater the conversation to your child’s developmental needs or communication style. 

Consider talking about other families you know with allergies and how their siblings may feel to spark conversation. Compile a list of emotions your child may feel so that even if they can’t articulate it, they feel seen and understood. Express gratitude for your child’s maturity, patience, and support during this time and acknowledge that they are a critical member of your family team. Remind the sibling that despite the hardships felt, they have gained assets they may not even be aware of and may feel:

  • Empowered: Many siblings are empowered as a result of having a sibling with a food allergy. They educate and bring awareness to others, such as friends, babysitters, adults, and counselors who may not understand the severity of allergies. They know how to act quickly and calmly in an emergency situation, from calling 911 to using an epipen.
  • Observant: They have a keen sense of their surroundings and are hyper-observant and vigilant (like a detective!) about food available.
  • Compassionate: They can relate to others with allergies or other diagnoses and disabilities. They may be more likely to have sympathy and sit at the “nut-free table” at school or express concerns with others.
  • Appreciative: Your child can eat foods and feel safe. Sometimes we forget to stop and be thankful for the things we can do.
  • Creative: The sibling can help research fun recipes, come with you to the grocery store to find new foods, or help you cook in the kitchen!

Remember to develop unique relationships with each of your children, paying special attention to each for even just 10 minutes a few times a week.