Teen troubles

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.

Immature brains
However, recent scientific studies provide one answer to the question parents world wide have asked their teen at one point or another. ‘'What were you thinking about?!'

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 last part of the brain to develop is the part that controls judgement, understands cause and effect, make plans, sets priorities, and controls impulses. Therefore, technically speaking, it is impossible for a teenager to think: 'I'll do my homework, clean up my room, and then get on the computer to my friends for a few hours.' The teenage brain just isn't wired to be responsible and logical in this way. Their raging hormones also make them more likely to seek out situations that elicit immediate pleasure, passion and thrill. This, combined with their under-developed ability to assess cause and effect, sets the stage for the risk-taking so commonly attributed to this age group. Scientists believe that originally this late development may have encouraged the young to leave the nest and create their own path in the world.

The consequences for food allergic and food intolerant teenagers
For teenagers with food allergies asking questions about ingredients, carrying medications and asking a date what they ate before deciding if a goodnight kiss is safe, can feel awkward and lead to poor decision-making (immediate pleasure versus long-term consequence).

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
Think with your child's head and heart. Think about what it must be like to want to date, hang out with friends, eat in restaurants and go to parties, while having to ask about ingredients in food, read labels, and find the courage to tell your date there will be no goodnight kiss if he or she has eaten the food to which you are allergic.

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 force-fully 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 010 800 929 4040 www.foodallergy.org

First published in 2006

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