Anne Muñoz Furlong, president of FAAN, the US Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (www.foodallergy.org) delves into the teenage psyche, unearthing new research that explains much disorganised and apparently chaotic teenage behaviour. She also suggests pointers for guiding at-risk food allergic and food intolerant teenagers.
The teen years have long been known for causing stress to parents. Risk-taking, rule-breaking and needing to be with friends are the hallmarks of this age, as teenagers grow toward becoming independent adults. Studies have shown that teens with food allergies are the highest risk group for experiencing a severe or fatal allergic reaction. This combination is sure to make most parents cringe at the thought of their young child becoming a teenager.
For many years it was thought that raging hormones were to blame for teenage behaviour. Scientists now believe that hormones are only one part of the equation. The other is that the brain does not fully develop until 25, even though it is almost adult-sized by the time a child is eight.
The consequences for food allergic and food intolerant teenagers
While teenagers may make safe choices when they are alone or with their families, in the company of friend or in a group they are likely to take more risks, either to fit in or to establish their role in the group.
For parents who are worried about their teen having an allergic reaction, a teenager's natural failure to plan and think logically can cause stress and frustration. Under these conditions a parent's impulse is to pull in the reins and micro-manage their child's activities. But this is just the opposite of the independence that a teenager needs. The result can be the family friction so many experience.
How to tackle the problem
Keep these issues in mind when your teenager tells you of plans to go out. Rather than pointing out why the plan won't work ask whether they have thought about how they will deal with their allergy - and offer to talk it through.
Teenagers learn through experience because their ability to think about cause and effect is not yet developed. Work through possible scenarios in real time.
For example, point out that not asking about ingredients may lead to embarrassment in front of friends when a reaction occurs. This will strike home more forcefully than an abstract warning such as ‘'you could end up in hospital'.
Don't embarrass your teenager in front of friends. The affectionate child at home may not want any physical contact in public. Being picked up or dropped off by a parent may cause an emotional outburst because the perceived level of embarrassment is tremendous. Avoid putting your child in a situation where he or she will have to make a decision between you and a group of friends. Remember that in a few years the chances are it will probably be quite OK to be your parents!
Look for signs of stress and get help quickly. Sometimes teens feel that food restrictions are too embarrassing so they retreat and avoid social situations. If your outgoing teenager becomes withdrawn, avoids friends, or loses interest in food and you can't establish a communication line, seek help.
If your child won't go to see a therapist, go alone and learn what you can do. Set up boundaries, structures and rules and stick to them. Most teens thrive with structures set by others.
Be sure you explain your decisions and allow your child to have a say. If your rules are fair and open to discussion, most teenagers will willingly obey them.
So when you ask your teen ‘What were you thinking of?' and the response is ‘I don't know' or 'nothing' you might actually be getting an accurate answer. Meanwhile, allow your teenager to dream about leaving home, travelling the world and doing anything he or she wants to do. Help them reach for the stars - as long as they have their medication in their pocket!
More information from FAAN. Also see research report on the biological reasons why teenagers may take greater risks – and therefore be in more danger of experiencing a serious allergic reaction.
First published in 2006