Written by Joshua Feblowitz, a Thriving contributor who has lived with severe food allergies his whole life.
As food-allergic children reach their teens, they face many new challenges in allergy management, including a first date and even a first kiss, both of which hold hidden dangers. For parents, these romantic milestones can be especially stressful because they happen outside of their watchful, protective view.
Unfortunately for food-allergic teens, dating frequently involves dining out and all the potential allergens that come with it. In addition, research and personal anecdote has shown that kissing can sometimes cause a cross-contact reaction. On top of these dangers, teens are generally known to take more risks when it comes to their allergies or feel self-conscious about them. As a result they may resist previously established rules around exposure, or be shy explaining their dietary needs, which can lead to trouble.
So, what’s a worried parent to do? The simple truth is, as teens start dating (and being more socially independent in general), they must also start learning how to manage food allergies on their own. Here are a few things you can do as a parent to help navigate this transition safely, smoothly and with minimal conflict:
Teach your teen to be proactive early on. The single best thing you can do to help your food-allergic teen safely navigate the dating world (and the world in general) is to teach them proactive management skills from an early age. Encourage them to read labels and order food at restaurants. Cook safe meals together. Don’t always speak for them; instead, involve them in the process of explaining their needs to others. The more comfortable your child is with food allergy management early on, the better they will be at looking out for themselves on a date or out with friends.
Research dining options with your food allergic teen. When the time comes that your food allergic teen is dating, it helps for them to know several safe local food options that they can choose from themselves. Take your family out to all the popular neighborhood restaurants and hangouts to help your teen become comfortable with these eateries and develop a rapport with the staff. Once they are out on their own, they’ll be better able to navigate a meal or snack safely. The reality is that teens may not always explain their dietary needs adequately and dining at a familiar restaurant with safe food options will lessen the risks of a reaction if they fail to do so.
Make sure peers (including boyfriends or girlfriends) are aware of your teen’s allergies. From an early age, encourage your child to explain his or her needs to people in their lives. The more a child feels that their allergies are a serious but manageable condition, rather than something embarrassing or scary, the more likely they are to appropriately communicate their needs to those around them. Friends, especially boyfriends and girlfriends, can also be great allies, looking out for your teen and providing an extra check against potential risks.
Let your teen know there is no compromising on carrying emergency medications. During the teenage years, parents learn to pick their battles, but this an area where parents need to stand their ground. Ensuring that your teen always carries their medications can be a struggle because some teens feel embarrassed about toting emergency medication everywhere. This can be especially challenging for boys who are less likely to have a means of carrying medications (such as a purse). Work with your teen to find a discreet option for carrying emergency meds. Don’t back down; the piece of mind you have from knowing that he has his meds in the event of an emergency is worth the battle.
Make your teen aware that reactions can occur as a result of physical contact such as kissing. This is one of the most important pieces of information that you can give your food allergic teen as they begin dating, especially because they may not even realize the risk. Research has shown that many food allergic individuals have experienced cross-contact reactions from kissing, including rashes, hives and wheezing. Brushing teeth, eating an allergen-free meal and waiting several hours can lessen (but not eliminate) these risks. Make sure that your teen understands that food allergy management doesn’t simply stop when the meal is over. It’s likely that the topic will be met with rolled eyes or embarrassment, but it’s still vital information. If it helps, try to use humor or make comparisons to typical usual allergy management practices like hand washing or wiping down the table before a meal.
Help your teen develop the skills they need to be independent. You’re probably used to looking out for your food-allergic child whether they are eating out at a restaurant, visiting a friend’s house or attending a school event. Yet the teenage years are the time that your child will begin seeking more independence and if they feel you’re being overbearing or intrusive, they may listen less and take more risks. Remember to trust them to know their allergies, their specific needs and their bodies. Keep looking out for them always, but know that you’ve given them the right tools along the way and that they will learn to manage on their own.
Additional Resources for Teens with Food Allergies:
Food Allergies in the Real World, http://www.faanteen.org/
FAAN Teen Resources, http://www.foodallergy.org/page/teens-index
Allergic Girl, by Sloane Miller
Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl, by Sandra Beasley