Get Teens to Take Food Allergies Seriously

Sally Schoessler serves as the Director of Education for the Allergy & Asthma Network here she oversees education initiatives and resource development. She has a strong background in working with allergies and anaphylaxis, where she has recently developed school policies and protocols related to food allergy management and was a reviewer of the CDC Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs.

Growing up can be hard on a good day.

Teenagers today face a wide range of issues. Developmentally, they are experiencing puberty, with all its highs and lows. Many teens struggle with depression, bullying, sexual activity, drug and alcohol use.  The explosion of social media introduces a whole new component to their world that includes the possibility of cyberbullying and forging a social identity in a fast-paced environment. These are very different concerns than their parents dealt with in adolescence.

They tend to see the world around them in concrete terms – things are black or white, great or miserable, awesome or really, really bad. Many don’t have the capacity to see long-term effects of their actions.

While growing up is a wonderful time without the responsibilities of adulthood, it is the hard work of “becoming yourself.” You long to be your own person, but you remain dependent on your parents. At the same time, all you really want is to fit in with your peers. And for an age group prone to risky behavior, this can be a recipe for concern.

Now, add in food allergy. It just magnifies the sentiment that “I’m different – I don’t fit in.” A recent study conducted in Australia revealed that one-third of teenagers with food allergies reported emotional and behavioral problems – and their mothers reported the incidence of problems was higher, at nearly 50 percent. Adolescents with food allergies struggle with depression, anxiety and even ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) at higher rates than their non-allergic counterparts.[1]

We, as parents and community members, need to look at how we can help food-allergic teens. They’re dealing with a lot – how to prevent an exposure to their food allergen and how to recognize and treat an accidental exposure. They must to know how to inject themselves with medication that can save their lives and when to get help.

Collaboration is key

As a middle school nurse in Rush-Henrietta, New York, I worked closely with both students with food allergies and their parents. We collaborated with the food service staff and held an evening meeting for parents. We had a great turnout and the nurses did presentations on food allergies, reasonable accommodations at school, and how to help children through these often-tumultuous years.

The food service staff followed up by going through all of the foods that the district served, noting the common allergens in each and identifying which would be safe for different allergies. They individually counseled parents if that was desired.

The afternoon after the meeting, a young man named Jake came into my health office and said, “This was a great day. I had a cookie at lunch. I’ve NEVER had a cookie at lunch – but the sugar cookies don’t have peanuts in them and I was just like my friends today.”

Small things mean a lot.

6 strategies for success

So what are some steps we can take to help our teens with food allergies? Along with resources from the Asthma & Allergy Network, Allergy Home’s Living Confidently with Food Allergies (allergyhome.org) suggests several strategies:

  • EMPOWER your teen to take an active role in managing their food allergy.
  • ENCOURAGE your teen to tell their friends about their food allergy
    • Friends need to know about your child’s food allergies in the event of an allergic reaction. If informed about what the symptoms of an allergic reaction might look like, they may be able to recognize symptoms [http://www.allergyasthmanetwork.org/education/allergies/anaphylaxis/] of a reaction and know what to do in an emergency.
    • Allergy management is better maintained outside the home when friends are educated and well-informed.
  • HELP your teen plan ahead for social situations
  • TALK about alcohol and drugs
    • These substances affect a person’s judgment. Explain that if teens are under the influence, they will have difficulty making clear decisions or recognizing symptoms of a reaction.
    • Alcoholic beverages can include common allergens (e.g., Amaretto liqueur includes almond).
  • TALK about dating and relationships
    • Give your teen the facts about food allergies and dating [http://www.allergyasthmanetwork.org/heart-heart-dating-with-allergies-asthma/], even if the topic is uncomfortable.
    • Suggest ways to tell a partner about food allergies.
    • Make sure your teen knows that kissing can cause an allergic reaction if someone has eaten an allergenic food up to several hours before a kiss.
    • Make sure your teen feels comfortable suggesting restaurants that are good choices for them (for example, restaurants that you have checked out together) or speaking up if they think that a restaurant is a risky choice.
    • Suggest to your teen that both meals (your teen and their date’s meals) should be allergy-safe. This is especially important if teens will be kissing.
  • ENCOURAGE open communication.
    • Let your teen know you are open to all questions and want to know how they are feeling.
    • Allow your teen to talk about “rule breaking” without the risk of punishment. Let them know that they can call home for help even if they’ve gotten themselves into an unsafe situation.

Working with your teenager to develop a food allergy management plan can help them navigate through their early adult years better prepared for the world around them.

The poet E.E. Cummings said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” And it’s worth every tear, every argument, every smile and every moment of laughter. It’s worth working for – and with a little courage and thought – it can be an amazing phase of life.

Growing up can be a great adventure.


[1] Ferro, M. A., Van Lieshout, R. J., Ohayon, J., & Scott, J. G. (2016, Jan. 19). Emotional and Behavioral Problems in Adolescents and Young Adults with Food Allergy. Eurpoean Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 1-9.

Since 2001, the National Peanut Board has been committed to helping find solutions for people with peanut allergy, allocating more than $10 million to research, outreach and education. For more information, visit http://www.peanutallergyfacts.org/.

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