Last time, we talked about young children with food allergy related anxiety. In this third article in our series, we look at teens with food allergies who start to experience heightened anxiety. Adolescence is full of changes and adjustments that create additional stress for teens. Peer dynamics shift, thinking becomes more complicated, and teens crave greater levels of independence. Youth frequently experience higher levels of anxiety in general during adolescence, however, intense anxiety can limit the natural course of development.
Teens tend to experience the physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety mentioned in part 1 of our series “What does anxiety look like?” They may also experience:
- Excessive worry about school, peers or parents
- Low self-esteem and negative thinking
- Seeking ongoing reassurance
- Clinginess with parents or refusal to go out with friends
- Moodiness or irritability
Keep these actions in mind as you help your teen manage their anxiety:
Be aware of potential signs of anxiety including trouble sleeping, stomach aches, headaches, irritability, refusal to do certain things (going out with friend), panic attacks and overly negative thinking. Consider that these could be signs a larger problem and open a dialogue.
Create space for your teen to talk about their life without interrupting them. This is important. Parents frequently jump in mid story to give their opinion and miss critical pieces. Instead, ask questions to show you are interested in what they have to say. Great spaces for that might include driving in the car or going on an outing without siblings. As you hear about different areas of their life you may get some rich information about places where food allergies may create additional concerns for them. Sleepovers? First kiss? Bullying? Dating? Underage drinking? Take your time to understand what may be fueling your teen’s concerns related to their food allergies and validate their feelings. It is important not to dismiss their emotions. Once you understand their concerns you can begin to address them.
By now your child probably knows their allergies and has seen their official action plan. Help them know how to read their food allergy plan. Teach them what to do in different situations. Practice taking the action steps, including alerting a friend, using an epi-pen, and calling 911. Inform your teen on how alcohol consumption may increase the rate at which an allergen is absorbed in the body, causing the symptoms to materialize at an accelerated rate. Let them know that they can come into contact with allergens through kissing. Address concerns teens may have about what to do in particular situations and worry they may have about feeling different or being judged.
Knowing the signs of anxiety helps teens to be aware of the messages their body is sending them. Many times teens may not even notice until they are having a panic attack that they were actually becoming more and more agitated in a situation. Alternatively, if they notice the anxiety early, they may be able to prevent negative thinking and catastrophizing from escalating the anxiety. Without education on anxiety, they may mistake anxiety for an allergic reaction. This awareness can help a teen determine how to proceed. “I’m experiencing anxiety. I have checked and I haven’t had any exposures to my allergen. It is normal and natural to be anxious at times. I need to calm my body and address the issue at hand.”
Use Mindfulness and Relaxation
Regularly practicing mindfulness skills and relaxation skills can help teens reduce their baseline stress as well as heightened anxiety. Mindfulness is being fully present in a single activity and accepting of any feelings, thoughts or sensations happening in that moment. Try this with diaphragmatic breathing, a body scan, yoga, or stretching.
Practice problem solving
In addition to knowing how to follow their food allergy action plan, teens need to know what to do in a variety of situations. Basic problem solving STEPs include
- Say the problem – Teens have to be able to articulate the problem.
- Think of solutions – Let them brainstorm and remember, no criticism.
- Explore consequences – Here is where you talk about the pros and cons of each solution
- Pick a solution – Finally, help them pick the solutions they would like to try, evaluate the outcome and repeat the process as necessary
Strike a Balance
When talking with your teen about food allergies you may be churning beneath the surface due to very valid fears and worries. However, you need to have a four point balance when talking to your teen.
- Be calm – Don’t let your anxiety show
- Have a matter of fact attitude – teens can smell criticism and judgement a mile away
- Emphasizing caution – Your attitude is matter of fact because you want to send the message that you are confident they can do this. However, you want your words to suggest that they be cautious and thoughtful in their decisions.
- Validating their feelings – If teens think you get their concerns, they will be more likely to listen to yours
Encourage conversations with trustworthy peers and trusted adults
Teens who have a support system and peers who have their back feel safer and more secure. Combine this with educating key caretakers, friends’ parents and important people in the teen’s life. These are the people who can help keep them safe and navigate difficult decisions.
Empower and encourage a healthy relationship with food
Some teens find not dealing with food easier than dealing with food allergies. Avoiding food altogether can circumvent the need to deal with the anxiety related to the food allergies. However avoiding food creates it’s own health concerns. On the flip side, risk taking with food is more likely during the teen years. If your teen pretends that food allergies aren’t a big deal, then they can avoid dealing with the anxiety related to the fact that it is a big deal. The thing about anxiety is the more you confront it the less power it has. Empower your teen to be in control of their food allergies. Teach and provide them opportunities to cook, make their own meals, and make food related decisions.
Let them be in control
Many times anxiety feels like you are not in control. Transition allergy management in a developmentally appropriate way to your teen. Initially with much oversight and progressively with less. Provide your teen with private time with their allergist at appointments. Allow them to address the waitstaff at restaurants. Use apps like AllergyEats to research restaurants together.
Address negative thinking
After validating feelings, challenge worst case scenarios with hard facts. Individuals with food allergies rarely die from a reaction and having a plan and their epi-pen goes a long way toward keeping them safe. Consider best case scenarios, that is, what they will miss out on if they avoid. Finally, zero in on the most realistic scenarios that includes caution and thoughtful plans.
Your teen is adjusting to the changes adolescence can bring. When you factor in food allergies and anxiety, adolescence can be quite the challenge. Ensuring your teen has a positive relationship with you can help them through these difficult years by providing them with the independence, trust, and the education they need to power through anxiety. Allow your teen to speak openly and honestly with you about topics such as dating, underage drinking, and bullying. Knowing they have a supportive parent will help them through these difficult transitions and onto becoming the responsible young adults they are meant to be.
Check out the whole Food Allergies and Anxiety series:
Part 1: What does anxiety look like?
Part 2: Helping Young Children
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Brave Minds Psychological Services helps children, teens and families overcome severe anxiety, stress, and painful experiences. We specialize in developing brave minded youth that can move forward despite fears and significant challenges.