My mind raced when I spied white residue on the living room coffee table where our teenager plays video games. Were my food allergy concerns about to be trumped by substance abuse? Bracing for the worst, I picked up a crumpled brown bag and looked inside. Ah, relief. It held a familiar yellow and green wrapper with the powdery remnants of Sour Patch Kids. Never was I so happy that my son was eating candy before dinner.
All parents worry about the potential dangers of adolescence, such as drinking and drugs. Even teens who stay out of trouble may sometimes act on emotion rather than logic because of hormonal changes and peer pressure. For kids with food allergies, this behavioral shift can add a whole new dimension of risk. In fact, teens and young adults are the age group most vulnerable to fatal allergic reactions.
As parents, we have to learn that many of the techniques we used to parent our pre-adolescent allergic child are likely to backfire with a teen who thinks he knows better. As his attitude changes, we too must modify our approach.
Learn to Love Pink Hair
Your teen is going to rebel and make decisions that you don’t like, so pick your battles. Compromise by cutting him a little slack on the choices you can live with. Multi-hued hair, shorts in the dead of winter, dirty jeans; all beautiful, as long as you see the auto-injectors peeking out of his grungy pockets.
Ask Questions, Don’t Make Demands
When your teenage son heads to the movies with his new girlfriend, his still developing brain may minimize the risk of allergen exposure through a kiss. Ask him: What would happen if you kissed her and had a severe reaction? Help him to consider the consequences and come to the right conclusion on his own. With guidance, rather than instruction, he’s more likely to talk with the girl about his allergies before the movie.
Give Him Multiple Lines of Defense
When investigating anaphylaxis tragedies, we often find a series of errors rather than one single irreversible mistake. Take several precautionary measures to ensure a positive outcome even if one step in the process fails.
For starters, suggest that your son eat his packed lunch off a napkin to avoid cross-contact with food residue. Next, check that he carries his auto-injectors and have the cafeteria staff keep an additional set along with his emergency care plan. Also, encourage him to eat lunch with friends who are aware of his allergies, including the severity.
Offer Agreeable Options
Rather than “laying down the law”, provide appropriate alternatives and let your teen decide. For example, “Do you want to bring your own safe food to the party or eat before you go?” This tactic teaches him acceptable ways to handle a situation while setting the groundwork for making good choices on his own.
Maintain Control With Your Behavior
Setting limits with teens is easier when done via your actions. For instance, you can’t force your child to carry his auto- injector – but you can refuse to lend him your car unless he does. If he can’t drive yet and needs a ride to the mall, hold out until you can see that he’s packed a safe snack.
Offer to Be the Bad Cop
Drugs and alcohol are detrimental for any adolescent. But for teens with food allergies, lowered inhibition can lead to unsafe food choices or cross-contamination risk from shared beverages or cigarettes. Help your teen avoid these situations by acting as their scapegoat. They can decline by saying, “No thanks. My mom will be waiting up and will go ballistic if she smells anything on my breath.”
Allow Them to Be One of the Gang
By adolescence, most kids want to extinguish anything that shines a light on their differences. They’d rather go without than bring an alternative to the classroom or a party. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see a food-allergic teen order a soda at a restaurant rather than make a “fuss” trying to order safe food. While this may not be the option we would choose, if it keeps your teen out of harm’s way, it’s a winner.
Above all, be sure to recognize and reinforce the times that your teen makes the right call. If you look beyond the purple hair, dirty jeans and Sour Patch Kids, you might even catch a glimpse of the adult who is beginning to emerge.
Allergic Living contributor Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach, who specializes in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, an online support group serving thousands worldwide.