For this family, the scariest part of Halloween has nothing to do with ghosts and goblins.

By Robin Berl
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Halloween has always terrified me. As a kid, I would hide behind my mom, closing my eyes tightly as masked figures passed us, giggling on the sidewalk. As a mother, I have learned to manage my fears of masks and monsters. However, Halloween is something that still haunts my dreams, because both my children have severe food allergies.

My five-year-old daughter must avoid eight foods and my two-year-old son has even more. Now, I fear not the faces of trick-or-treaters, but their trick-or-treat bags, full of ingredients that could send my children to the hospital.

My daughter was 14 months old on her first real Halloween. She toddled around a party in a dragonfly costume, occasionally bobbing her head to make her antennae wiggle or joyfully flapping her wings. By then we had already discovered that she was allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts—a single bite of yogurt had caused an anaphylactic reaction, and we always carry an epinephrine injector with us. My plan that year was to let her experience the fun and save the treats for Daddy. But when I brought her home, she reached inside her Halloween bucket and grabbed a Hershey’s Kiss. The silver foil wrapper was missing a tiny piece, revealing a peek of the chocolate inside. It touched her hand for less than a minute, but that was enough to make small hives appear on her face.

So the next Halloween, we added protective gloves to her costume. That year we also discovered the Teal Pumpkin Project, which encourages treat-givers to provide non-food goodies to make Halloween inclusive for children with allergies. While we didn’t receive any non-food treats that year, we handed out glow bracelets and educational flyers to our neighbors. We also started another family tradition that year, inspired by the Switch Witch—sort of a mix between Elf on the Shelf and the Tooth Fairy—who swaps Halloween candy for a gift. In our family, my children have the option to give their candy to Daddy or to share it with other kids. Then they come home and enjoy their chosen treats. My daughter always asks for marshmallows (she loves one particular brand, full of sugar and allergy-safe ingredients); her brother takes a less edible route. “Stickers! And dinosaurs!”

One of our favorite Halloween moments was when we stopped at a store downtown last year, and the children were each given a tiny toy dinosaur as a treat. It was the only thing they collected that day that they could keep. I held back from hugging this unsuspecting salesperson, but I couldn’t hold back the tears forming in my eyes. There are so many times when I have to say no. These rare moments when I can say yes are so emotional because in that one instant they simply get to be normal kids.

We are now approaching our fifth food-allergy Halloween. Both my children are learning how to advocate for themselves and explain their food allergies, and I am learning to trust the systems that we have set in place. Of course, it would be easier to stay at home and avoid such a dangerous situation. But for my children, every day is full of dangerous situations. There are always children walking around with food. I can’t hold them back from daily life, I especially don’t want to hold them back from experiencing special events and occasions. Even though we’ve eliminated the typical “treat” part of Halloween, my children love the dressing up part. They spend as many hours as possible at home in costume—and in character. They fully embrace the one time of the year when it’s acceptable to walk around town as their favorite animals, princesses, or superheroes. They love that the entire world becomes engaged in imaginary role play. For them, that’s the biggest treat.

I will still probably hover, making sure that they don’t touch any of the candies without their gloves. As a parent, I am working not to pass along my fears about their food allergies. While life-threatening food allergies are definitely scary, I want my children to thrive in spite of these circumstances. I want them to live lives that are not dictated by fear.

Maybe this year, we can go back to being afraid of monsters.

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