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The Unseen (but Profound) Gifts of a Gluten-Free Childhood

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

When our daughter was diagnosed with celiac disease at age nine, my husband and I walked a line between relief and worry. As her health improved, my worries remained. Beyond the dietary challenges ahead, I was equally concerned for her emotional and social well-being. How would she navigate all the rites of passage to come?

 

But as another year wraps up almost 13 years later, I'm here to tell you that--inconveniences and tough moments aside--Edyth's diagnosis actually turned out to be among the greatest gifts of her life. I'm ever amazed at the silver linings that continue to emerge not just despite, but BECAUSE of her life as a gluten-free child!

 

Here are a few:

 

1) Priorities, Priorities

As many with food intolerances quickly realize, what we bring to the table of life is far more important than whatever is being served at the buffet. At our house, the mantra goes like this: It's not about the food; it's about the people, places, and experiences in our lives. This idea bears repeating before events or whenever self-pity creeps in.

 

By putting people, places, and experiences first, kids learn to value them in new ways. And that can spur involvement, whether in clubs or school or, in Edyth's case, in pre-professional children's ballet company. While that all-too-common pizza party may feel a little awkward on occasion (even with snacks in tow), the lesson is clear: you can make up for it by connecting more, exploring more, and bringing more of YOU to it all!

 

2) Self-Advocacy (which breeds confidence!)

Having a food intolerance automatically puts your child in the driver's seat for self-care. Of course we intervened on our daughter's behalf at first... I'm an overprotective mother, after all. So initially, we met with teachers, camp counselors, dance coaches, and others. But the steering wheel slowly moved from our hands to Edyth's through the months and years. And guess what? She took it, and long before she learned to drive.

 

The thing is, the more we guide our children towards self-advocacy, the more their confidence blooms. From ordering for herself in restaurants to relaying her needs to friends, their parents, and others, Edyth's self-assurance grew right along with the rest of her. That doesn't mean we weren't still supporting from the sidelines--I usually volunteered to bring at least one safe dish to most every event we attended--but even if I hadn't, I think she would have managed.

 

Kids take charge when they realize they can. In fact, research has shown that once a child is taught to self-advocate in one area, that personal empowerment extends to other areas as well. That said, we all know that every stage of development brings moments of insecurity. But I'm convinced that all the growing pains were less daunting because Edyth's celiac disease had helped her develop resiliency enough to brave the storms.

 

3) Patience and Creativity (yes, separately AND together)

 For gluten-free kids, the holiday season (and any season, really) can feel a little demoralizing. I mean, just look at that spread! Those cookies! That stuffing! And all those delicious aromas from things that cannot be tasted... sigh. But I'll share a little trick that helped us through even the most frustrating dining experiences. The mantra? If you can't take it, make it!

 

This became our little game, where Edyth would note any food item she wanted to eat but couldn't. And then, each week, we'd choose something from her list to make gluten-free. Truth be told, things didn't always translate perfectly. (On one such attempt she wanted cake pops. Ours were more like wilted, runny-icing covered cake squares stabbed with forks. Hideous, but tasty!)

 

So yeah, we bombed some recipes and nailed others. But through it all, Edyth became a fearless gluten-free cook and baker! And in an instant-gratification world, our kids can all benefit from learning to wait, right? Now in her twenties, this girl is constantly experimenting with new gluten-free creations in the kitchen--and let's just say her friends aren't complaining!


4) Empathy

When you've been the kid with the food intolerance--and thus, occasionally, a sort of outcast, you come to feel for others who face challenges of any kind. Edyth has become an outspoken advocate and a front-line upstander for anyone facing challenges. She knows what it's like, and that is a wonderful thing.


These are just a few of the gifts we've encountered along our daughter's gluten-free journey. Granted, the logistics haven't always been easy-breezy. There have been disappointments and occasional frustrations when supposed "safe foods" at a party were anything but. Still, the positives continue to outweigh the rest.

 

Today, our recent college graduate is studying for the MCAT and applying to medical schools. Gift number 5? Her interest in biology and anatomy that arose from curiosity about her condition. On that front, don't hide any of it! Show your child diagrams. Encourage open conversation. Help demystify the workings of the body in ways that underscore self-care. Who knew how exciting digestion or immune processes could be? I certainly did not, but the future Dr. Edyth seemed enthralled!

 

With all the unrest and strife in our world, this is a time to count our blessings and hold them close. I know that for our daughter and our family, the great gift of a once-overwhelming diagnosis has brought so much more than a return to physical well-being. It has brought a lifetime of lessons to grow on.


Happy holidays--and may 2024 bring joy, peace, and good health to us all!

 

For more tips, practical advice, and insights on raising gluten-free kids, consult The Gluten-Free Parent's Survival Guide and The Gluten-Free Teen's Survival Guide . The Gluten-Free Parent has written for numerous publications including Gluten-Free Living, Allergy Magazine, Whole Foods Magazine, and many others. She continues to advocate for parents and children living their best gluten-free lives.

 





 

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