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Parenting a Teen with Severe Allergies

The most dangerous time for anaphylaxis is the teenage years

Parenting a Teen with Severe Allergies

When I first met my future step son, his father told me all about Alex’s severe allergy to peanuts. So severe in fact, he was anaphylactic and constantly had to carry an EpiPen Auto-Injector with him. It was a strange and scary new world for me. Suddenly, I had to be hyper-vigilant where he was concerned. Reading food labels became a matter of life and death. Making sure that adults whose care he came under were aware of his allergy became a full-time job.

When I came into his life, Alex was six. His parents discovered his allergy after he had a severe reaction to a peanut sundae when he was a toddler. After the initial shock wore off, they immediately got to work educating him how to live with anaphylaxis. Not an easy job, but they were incredible. I remember being impressed at how careful he was to read labels, or have an adult double check them for him. How he always came over and asked us at parties or gatherings if something was safe to eat. As he grew, we remained aware and alert for peanuts, and continued to reinforce the messages taught to him when he was young.

Then a funny thing happened, this little kid started to grow into a young man (the nerve) and as he got older, we started to relax a little.

I took Alex to see his allergist when he was 14 and the doctor confirmed that Alex still had a severe allergy to peanuts. Then the doctor turned to me and said something I'll never forget. He said the most dangerous time for anaphylaxis is when they are teens. When parents start to let their guard down and teens feel most invincible is when we should in fact be most vigilant. Reflecting back on my teen years and the stupid things I did, I knew he was right.

How then do you convince the invincible that they are not?

First, acknowledge some of the stresses your teen might be facing, such as:

  • Having to be responsible beyond her/his years
  • Having to curb spontaneity and impulsiveness ( a big one for teens!)
  • Feelings of resentment of being conspicuous
  • Fear of being defined by the allergy
  • Issues related to dating/romance — being accepted, having the allergy treated seriously, "how can I kiss him/her?", other limitations imposed on a serious boy/girlfriend
  • Worry about being able to cope on his/her own upon leaving home
  • Fear about having an accident
  • Fear of death

As you can see from the list above, you're not dealing with kid stuff anymore and as such the conversation needs to change.

Here are a few messages to drive home with your teen:

  • Teach your teen to read food labels and assess the safety of a product.
  • Give your teen practice in shopping for and preparing appropriate foods, which are as close as possible to "regular" dishes that other teens eat. Serve these when his/her guests come to the house. Some teens enjoy hosting complete dinners for their friends and it's a great way to get them interested in learning to cook.
  • Encourage the habit of carrying an extra allergy-friendly snack and drink along. Hunger may strike unexpectedly, or plans may change, and a hungry teen is more likely to take a risk.
  • Identify some "safe" snacks that are readily available at a corner store, even if their nutritional value is zero. Do the same for items which might be found at friends' homes; fruits, vegetables, chips or pretzels, etc.
  • Discuss cross-contamination and how it can happen in an unprotected environment. Discuss how to minimize this problem so that the teen can confidently enjoy outings with his/her friends.
  • Remember to replace your EpiPen before it expires. Register for the Expiration Reminder Service at

And don't forget the most important point of all. MOST ACCIDENTS HAPPEN WHEN THE USUAL ROUTINE IS UPSET! Parties and special events are always more risky than an ordinary day at home or at school. Inform your teen of the special danger of alcohol in reducing inhibitions and in enhancing allergic reactions.

By talking, talking, and talking some more, you will keep you and your teen alert to the dangers of anaphylaxis.

EpiPen has been a constant in Alex's life now for 18 years. Thankfully we've never had to use it, but it's always been good to know it's there if the unthinkable happens.

Postscript: As I was writing this post, Alex stopped by for a visit. He told me that he just visited the allergist (he is now 21) and again he was told he continues to be high-risk due to his age.

Severe allergies are on the rise in Canada.
We teamed up with EpiPen so you can arm yourself with information and be prepared if a life-threatening allergic reaction occurs.
You can find out more about life-threatening allergies and read stories from other parents on our A Parent’s Guide to Dealing with Kids with Severe Allergies page.