Food Allergy, Teens: The Danger Years
Besides Sabrina’s death, Kathleen has another motivation for vigilance about her allergies. She clearly remembers what a reaction feels like – her last anaphylactic episode was at the age of 12. The reaction also made a profound impression on her good friend, Tessa Cotnam, 19, who had invited Kathleen and other friends over to her house on the day Kathleen ate a peanut-filled candy by mistake. As Alice rushed her daughter to hospital, a crying Tessa ran “to tell my parents that I thought I had killed Kathleen.”
Ham Pong and other experts say the experience of knowing what a reaction feels like helps food and sting allergic individuals to grasp the seriousness. But, in fact, many teens do not know the feeling. Many were diagnosed through allergy tests as toddlers or through reactions as infants; they have no memory of this. Such teens “don’t necessarily believe they’ll react, or they only half believe it,” Ham Pong says. “It’s just something they’ve been told by their parents.” Young has seen this as well from the educator’s perspective. “Because they can’t recall ever having one, they have that feeling of invincibility – I’m not really going to have a reaction, eating this ‘may contain’ must be OK.”
IN FAIRNESS TO teenagers, having allergies on top of everything else that’s going on inside a maturing body and brain is not easy. And parents should not underrate teenage peer pressure – adult office politics pale in comparison. “In high school, if you don’t have the right clothes and the right shoes, you get picked on,” says Anna Woollam, a Grade 10 student who was Sabrina’s best friend. “I’m not one of the kids who gets picked on, but I see it all the time.”
Given the rigid fashion ethic of the school hallway, many of the teens interviewed say they would never dream of wearing a fanny pack or a belt that holds an auto-injector. Keely Hutton, a Grade 8 student at Bishop who’s highly allergic to peanuts and tree nuts is, however, delighted with the sporty little purse that her mother bought for her – not only does it look cool, it will accommodate her two EpiPens.
Teenagers, allergic or not, want to fit in. Kathleen, Trevor and Keely all separately acknowledge that none of them wants to feel different from the other students. Kathleen is getting better about speaking up and questioning food servers about her allergens (before she would ask a friend to ask). And she’s not shy about explaining her allergies when people ask about them. Still, she says, “I get embarrassed when I’m in a big group of students and a teacher asks: ‘Do you have your EpiPen with you?’ I feel like I’m 5. Nobody else gets asked, ‘Did you bring extra socks?’” She knows teachers are just doing what they’re supposed to do. She would just like to see a little more sensitivity, such as calling her aside.
Social situations are also difficult for teenagers with allergies to navigate. The year her soccer team won the championship, some of Kathleen’s teammates organized a celebration at the Eastside Mario’s restaurant in Pembroke. Kathleen couldn’t enter that establishment with peanut shells on the floor any more than she could join friends when they go to the local Dairy Queen. This was an oversight on the part of the organizers, and Kathleen isn’t the type to whine about such incidents. But they are frustrating and, at times, hurtful. “Sometimes I get left out of things, which kind of sucks,” she says. “But I’ll say, ‘whatever, it’s no big deal’. But sometimes I do care. Maybe I sometimes act tougher than I am because of allergies.”