Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Food Allergies and Allergic Teens: Taking the Next Big Step

Happy Birthday, dear Alex.
Today my daughter is a teenager! And while turning 13 is exciting and fun on many levels for her and for us, it also represents for me, at least, a new phase for our family. Food allergy management is no longer just the domain of parents or other adults; kids now step into a leadership role.

Our daughter was diagnosed with life-threatening nut allergies 9 years ago; it's hard to believe it's been that long. We've all learned a lot and grown a lot. No matter how old she gets, of course I will always be there for my daughter if she needs me. I'm always willing to advocate for her if she needs the help, which she will need, for awhile. However, more and more I'm seeing that it's time for me to begin to trust her, offer her the opportunity to self-advocate and make good decisions. This is what she will need to do the rest of her life and frankly, I've always had an eye on this fact. All through her childhood we've encouraged her to self-advocate and learn to self-manage. Now the real test begins, because she will need to do this for herself more and more frequently.
For parents of younger kids who are not yet in my shoes, let me tell you that it does give me a lot of hope and a feeling of security to know that I have taught her as well as I can. Whatever you are doing now to support and teach your child, it will give you more peace of mind when they get older and manage things on their own. I trust my daughter; she's given me no reason not to. But let's face it--kids are kids. They make mistakes. Teens are famous for pushing the envelope; in a way, it's their job to do that.
My daughter's pink "Groovy Girl" b-day cake when she was in kindergarten.
Yep, that seems like yesterday.
The goal is an independent, self-sufficient teen and young adult who can confidently manage their food allergies. But life isn't perfect and neither are we. How do we go forward and help kids get through the teen phase, safely, and healthy in both body and spirit with regard to life-threatening food allergies?
For me, a lot of unknowns still exist. We have a long way to go. But I feel confident (most of the time!) that my daughter can manage her allergies in just about any situation because we have done a lot of work together to get to that point.
A few things I can suggest that have helped me in this effort:
Try to stay positive about handling food allergies. Yes, food allergies rocked our daughter's world and occasionally prevented her from certain activities (ice cream shops, bakery birthday cakes, school treats) but we always focused on the positive as much as possible. Everyone has a challenge in life or multiple challenges; that's life. This is just one of them. If you approach food allergies with an attitude of  "you can handle this" I do believe it helps kids get through some potentially difficult situations.
Offer unconditional, calm support. Suppose your child makes a mistake about what to eat or is struggling with managing the allergy at school. Even if you are so upset (at the school, your child, another child) try not to freak out on this subject, at least in front of your child. They need to feel like they can share with you and so, be calm and offer solutions. If you need to vent, talk to your spouse or a friend. Some kids might feel like they don't want to burden you, so if you get really upset, they won't tell you what's up. And you don't want that. It's good to remember the motto: "Keep Calm and Carry On."
Give kids ownership of the allergy right from the beginning. Starting when they are young, have them be the one to remember to pack the epinephrine (of course, you'll double-check, but let them initiate), speak up in a restaurant or to a friend. We have always encouraged our daughter to do this and it's second nature to her now. I remember my daughter's kindergarten teacher telling me that my daughter always asked about foods, would say "no" to certain things and generally advocate for herself. Start young and it will pay off later. It also helps kids to feel more empowered and less shy when they can do this.

Be honest. This is life or death stuff, so you have to be honest about concerns and food allergy management requirements. In turn, kids should be able to feel comfortable sharing their feelings, good or bad, about food allergy management.
Remember that you are not your kid. If you don't have any food allergies yourself, you may not understand everything that your child is going through. Listen to them and sympathize and acknowledge that they may be experiencing things unknown to you. They will respect you and trust you for admitting that.

I'm not going to tell you I'm never scared about sending my daughter out there with allergies or that I don't have anxiety about certain things.  All I can do is trust that I have done what I can do and that I will continue to be a resource for her.
For more information on teens and food allergies, click the link for a great article on management and coping.
And visit Anaphylaxis Canada and the FARE web site for specific teen info. Allergic Living magazine has a lot of good information, too.


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful to read. I have a 9yo daughter who was diagnosed at 6mos. old. It's scary with her getting older and more independent, but great to see other moms like you being so positive. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I've been following your blog since we discovered our daughter's PA four years ago. She's now five. She's become sensitive to her PA. She has a difficult time watching her friends and younger brother (no allergy) eat treats that she can't have. I always have safe treats for her, but she just wants to have what everyone else is having. It's hard for her to understand that her brother does not have PA.

I want to prepare her for kindergarten. I want to keep her reaction free at school. I worry that PA kids are singled out at the peanut free table at her new school. I want to "bully-proof" much to worry about.

It sounds like you have brought up an amazing young lady! I would love to hear more about your experience with your daughter on how she navigated through this age.

Jenny said...

Hi there, Wow, how great that you have been reading all these years. That's really nice to hear.

You bring up some really great points that I have tackled in my e-book. If you would like to check it out, here's the link: My book speaks to many of the challenges we and others face.

I would expect some ups and downs dealing with nut allergies, especially as your child gets older. I hope I don't leave anyone with the impression that it has always been smooth sailing for us. We've had to prioritze activities, find ways to adapt, say no to some things and yes to others. It's a process, so take it one step at a time and you will be OK.

Regarding school, everyone has anxiety and the key is to work with the school and your daughter. Make sure to host play dates at your house so kids get to know her. If you want her to sit at a lunch table that's peanut-free, reinforce to her that it's for her safety and work with the school so that friends can join her there. Some parents prefer to have kids sit at the table with the class, but the child sits at the end and not near the kids with PB that day. However, for that to work, you need informed/involved school staff. Ask your school about options. It's all about communication. Here is a link about school for you to check out. Many resources are listed here.

Regarding non-allergic sibs, that's tricky at times but can her brother support her by not eating off-limits things around her while she is struggling to cope with this? For example, we take our non-allergic daughter on outings on her own where she eats the foods her sister can't eat. We balance this by offering another activity to our daughter with allergies. It has worked well.

I can't give you the perfect solution to everything but I can tell you that things will get better and having a postive approach will help your daughter as she learns to navigate her life with allergies.

You've inspired me to create another blog post addressing some of these issues, so thanks!
All the best to you!

Jenny said...

One point I missed! Teaching your daughter how to manage allergies will boost her confidence, help ease fears and make her safer, which will make her feel better in general. I have found that children's books like Princess and the Peanut and the No Biggie Bunch are great for helping young kids realize they are not alone in their allergies. Best, Jenny

h said...

I am a regular reader so I don't know how I missed this post! Happy belated birthday to your daughter and thank you for submitting this post to the blog carnival! I especially like your tip about giving your child ownership of their allergy.

Jenny said...

Thank you for the b-day wishes and for hosting the upcoming blog carnival! :) Jenny