I have a food allergic 10 year old. I’m starting to see all those signs of tweeny-ness that my friends have been talking about. And, although I could use a lot less eye rolling and smart alecky retorts, but I understand this is a (questionably) necessary right of passage into his more independent teen years.
Do you all remember being a teenager? How many ill thought out decisions did you make? My oldest child will be a teen before I know it and he’ll be faced with choices of his own. The only way he’ll grow is to make mistakes, I know. But when food allergies are a part of your life, small mistakes could be costly.
So, even if you don’t have a teen YET, please read on so as your kid ages you know what to look out for:
According to an article posted on Radio Canada International [Severe Allergy Risk Worse Among Teens, Young Adults], there are several issues at play during the teenage years that put them at greater risk for a severe food allergy reaction:
- They believe they are invincible. Having had the minutia of their lives cushioned by their parents, teachers, etc up until these years, they feel they are unstoppable.
- They typically feel a strong need to conform to their peer group. Admitting to a food allergy, needing to ask multiple and sometimes persistent questions at meals, not to mention carrying often bulky epinephrine doesn’t make them invisible. If anything, it highlights their “differentness.”
- Teens are independent creatures. They may balk against whatever makes them feel limited.
According to Dr. Scott Sicherer of Mt. Sinai in practical terms this means:
- They fail to tell their peers about their condition.
- They don’t want to/don’t know how to speak up to authority figures (such as teachers, waiters, etc) and alert them of their food allergies and dietary limitations.
- Teens often leave their emergency medication at home – particularly when active and/or wearing something fashionable that leaves little room for autoinjectors.
- They taste foods to see if it might contain an allergen, rather than reading labels. My guess is that it may be harder for teens to reject an invitation to taste something “amazing” or even terrible, particularly if it means that behavior allows them to better fit in with their social circle.
The Radio Canada article goes on to quote Dr. Adella Atkinson, who offers a few helpful suggestions:
- Start the conversation about food allergies early. Without scaring them, very young children should be aware that some foods can make them sick. Empowering young children will enable them to more confidently handle their food allergies as they age.
- Provide choices. [I thought this was the best suggestion I’ve heard in a while. I can’t wait to implement it this weekend!] Decisions about who and which kind of epinephrine autoinjector to carry, what kind of cuisine they’d like to eat, what their food plan is for outings without you will again empower them and force them to think through their food allergy roadblocks before they hit them.
- In the WebMD article, Teens With Food Allergies Take Risks, Dr. Sicherer goes on to suggest educating friends as a secondary safety net. This has already served us well [See That’s What Friends Are For] as my son’s friends help look out for him, are careful to make eating a more INCLUSIVE rather than exclusive experience, avoid eating my son’s allergen around him, and have been taught how to use epinephrine autoinjectors.
- Teach your child’s friends how to use an autoinjector. This is a great use of old EpiPens and Auvi-Qs and tweens and teens find it interesting. By now, they’ve usually seen autoinjectors before and have loads of excellent questions. Practice using autoinjectors by injecting them into an orange or grapefruit.
- Buy/create several different accessories to help your tween or teen wear her epinephrine in all circumstances. A dress with no pockets? No problem! Going skiing? We’ve got your covered. School dance? Don’t worry: there’s a way to wear it there too! [See Your Growing Child: How to Carry Epinephrine]
But the most important thing you can do is keep up the conversation. Not only are food allergies dangerous, they are stressful. Keep talking to your tween and teen about them. Make sure they know the door is wide open to discuss anything that comes up surrounding them. And, present them with the big picture: that you might want to fit in during your teens but you want to stand out in your twenties. Encourage them to get a head start by being careful and responsible with their health!