On Healing 9/19/2005: Anxiety of being a severely allergic teen

A mother recently wrote me about her 12-year-old daughter, Rachel, who has a severe peanut allergy. She was always anxious about it, but lately she has been avoiding restaurants and other people’s kitchens for fear of getting sick.

Peanut allergies can be life-threatening, and the number of cases has doubled in the last several years. Moreover, 12 years old is a difficult time for any child, and especially one with a chronic illness. Many children who seem adjusted to their disability will get frustrated or depressed in early adolescence, when children need to feel more independent of their family and fit in with their peers. And having an illness makes them feel different – the nemesis of adolescents.

I asked Rachel to tell me about her life:

“I first found out about my allergy seven years ago and have been frustrated ever since. Every trip to the grocery, I have to check every single list of ingredients. I can’t eat M&Ms, Kit Kats, and most baked goods. I can’t eat cakes at birthday parties. I can’t even eat anything if the product was manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts! If I do, I could go into shock. I always have an EpiPen [injectable epinephrine] with me just in case.

“I only feel safe eating at home. I sometimes get so upset and self-conscious that I have no appetite left anyway. I could bring my own food to my friend’s house, but I hate calling attention to myself. I have survived. I just wish it was easier.”

Dear Rachel: I too wish it was easier. Severe allergies can be a terrible burden. I know you have suffered. And it sounds as if the burden has worsened recently.

For what it’s worth, you are not alone. I have seen many kids with chronic illness over the years who do pretty well until adolescence. Then many get frustrated or anxious. And the children who get angry are usually embarrassed about the same thing you are – feeling different. The last thing someone your age wants is to be “different.”

I have two secrets for you. One is that kids your age try so hard to act cool because deep inside, they feel as if they are different. The other secret is that while nobody wants to be different, nobody wants to be the same, either! We all want to be our own person. And most people do this by trying to be cooler, prettier, smarter or more muscular than other kids. What they want is to be accepted by the group and to have their own individual style.

So what can be done? I don’t know if your mom told you, but I am in a wheelchair. In the beginning, I had the same emotions you have. I felt different and embarrassed, and also afraid. You are scared of your allergy’s being triggered; I was afraid of almost everything! So when I went out with people, I told them the things I feared. That made me feel less embarrassed and scared. Most important, I felt less alone.

Now, because I am an adult, most of my friends were OK with what I said. Some were not, and we didn’t stay friends very long. What I did might have been easier because I am older, but I am sure the results would be similar for you.

Some of your friends might be so insecure they will avoid you. But most kids would be happy to be your friend and help you avoid stuff that might hurt you. The friends you wind up with are the ones you really want to cultivate in the first place!

Dear Reader: Rachel said she was interested in talking with older kids with peanut allergies, and her mother said she wants to help form a support group. You can contact Rachel at: X0sk8rgrl5390x@aol.com, or her mother, Barbara, at Weet986@aol.com.

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