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Food Allergy

Beyond the Eye Roll and Tune Out: How to Talk to Teens About Food Allergies

With three recent deaths from anaphylaxis, the topic of teenagers and food allergies are top of mind in our allergy community. Many are questioning how we reach teenagers about the need for constant vigilance about food precautions and carrying epinephrine, yet not make them fearful of life. We asked Laura Bantock, director of Food Allergy Canada’s Western Region, to offer some much needed guidance to parents on communicating with an allergic teen.

ThinkstockPhotos-86524740A YOUNG person’s ability to learn from us depends on a few variables and should always be based on his or her emotional, developmental and education level. As a registered nurse, food allergy advocate, and parent of a young adult with food allergies, I know that context matters when it comes to talking to kids if you want them to listen and learn.

Discussing allergy management with a young person may bring on, at minimum, some eye rolling, or at the other end of the spectrum, it may cause emotional distress. While mild anxiety around food allergy can assist teenagers in focusing on problem-solving, significant levels of anxiety can rob a person of the ability to find solutions at all. If parents recognize anxiety around their teen’s food allergy, they should intervene early and seek professional help.

Here are my tips for starting the conversation with your food-allergic teenager — and keeping an open dialogue with her or him:

Pick your moments. When you’re planning to speak to your teen on a sensitive subject, select your time carefully. Choose a moment when stress levels are low, and when you know you can ensure a supportive environment, so that you’ll be more likely to get and keep their attention.

Eliminate barriers to clear communication. If your teenager is distracted — if hungry, for instance — he or she will be much less likely to listen and learn from you. In that situation, have a seat; have a snack together. Pour a couple of glasses of water and make sure your teen is comfortable. These investments in preparation will ensure what happens next is meaningful for them and you.

Resist the urge to preach. Once the talking starts, at all costs, resist the urge to delve into “lecture mode”. It would be wise to postpone this conversation altogether rather than have it to lead to disagreement or conflict.

Communications should always be respectful and warm. If you express your feelings and your motivation for keeping him safe regularly, your teen won’t feel threatened discussing any topic. Try to speak to a teenager as you would speak to an adult friend – that way, you’ll be less likely to get a childish response. Think about what they need to learn, rather than your need to be heard.

Let your teen be frank. For teenagers, self-expression is often very difficult and they need a safe environment to be able to discuss feelings and problems. This means it’s important that they do not fear discipline for being honest about a mistake or a poor decision. Don’t rob them of an opportunity to learn from mistakes, as these are the lessons that stick with all of us.

LauraLaura Bantock, RN, says to speak frankly to young people about food allergies, but to also remember to treat them with the respect you would any other adult. Photo: Chip Bantock

Invite them to be part of the plan. Collaboration is a powerful and engaging force for adolescents, so get them on board with learning about allergy management by helping them to have a voice in their own anaphylaxis emergency plan. Emphasize that it’s actually their emergency plan. This may seem like a simple shift of terminology, but in reality the implications are enormous.

Your teen will need to understand and orchestrate this plan while moving towards independence, especially when taking part in activities where parents won’t be present to guide or take over in an emergency situation. In addition, encourage your teen to teach others about the need for assistance should an allergic reaction happen.

When young people feel that they have influence or power, this encourages responsible behavior and builds feelings of confidence. The teenage years are a valuable training ground for the future, so as parents we need to allow young people to communicate and learn from their mistakes. Make this time count and help your loved one begin to take the reins for the management of their medical condition. This can pay great dividends in the moment, as well as later on.

Employ creative ways to educate. Different people have different learning styles, and this is especially true of teens. Find credible sources of information that will be appealing and let the resource teach for you. A good example would be the interactive E-learning provided at www.allergyaware.ca or a website designed for teens and young adults such as www.whyriskit.ca. FARE also has good resources for teens with food allergies, plus there’s Allergic Living‘s own adolescent hub (includes some duplication of the first three resources mentioned above).

Make sure that whatever resource you choose has content specific to your country’s laws and policies, and that its information is medically accurate, up-to-date, and evidence-based. This is especially important when it comes to emergency forms and advice around medications. Encourage independent learning by suggesting your teen research a specific topic and teach you about it! An example might be label reading or investigating allergy policies at university or in the workplace.

Don’t forget the hands-on approach to learning allergy management. Everyone benefits from practice with epinephrine auto-injectors and reviewing the steps of an emergency plan. Since it’s vital that everyone around your loved one knows how to recognize symptoms and how to administer an epinephrine auto-injector, have your teen help by using a training device to teach  relatives and peers.

REMEMBER that, as a parent, you are the most important role model in your teen’s life, and planning ahead for safe food options and always having epinephrine available are skills that you will need to impart to your child. Having a safe, portable meal or snack ready for that busy day at school, university or work is imperative so that decisions about safe food are not done when hunger or time constraints are a major influencing factor. Kids won’t develop these strategies without your help, so start early and make it part of your daily routine.

And always remember – No epinephrine? NO FOOD!

Laura Bantock is a registered nurse and director of Food Allergy Canada’s Western Region.

For more insights, don’t miss our cover article: “Food Allergies Meet the Teenage Brain” in the Fall issue of Allergic Living.

To give us feedback on this article, please email comments@allergicliving.com

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